Keep It Local: Why Understanding State Legislatures is an Essential Democratic Skill
Let’s play a game.
You, dear TPV reader, are an engaged, active citizen. You read not only the eventual award-winning essays on this site but also immerse yourself in understanding the world around you through a variety of sources including print, online, and social media. You are informed and thus, have a sense for both what is going on in your local community but also what has occurred in the not-so-distant past. Having accumulated this knowledge and having a now-yearning desire to make a difference in this world, you are considering a run for local office. After intensive and exhaustive research, you have found that there exists 3 distinct paths for you to choose moving forward:
Path #1 - Path #1 lets you run as a state representative or state senator in a region where you are provided with a salary of $100/year for your two-year term. You do not get a per diem amount for your services but you do get special recognition on your license plate which gives you free transportation through all of the region’s tolls. This will come in handy for your trips to the capitol for the six-month legislative session, where your normally required to be there in person for 21 days. Last year, the legislature considered over 1,100 bills with roughly 350 passing, making for a 32% success rate.
Path #2 - Path #2 lets you run as a state representative or state senator in a region where you are provided with a salary of $29,667 a year for your two-year term state representative term or four-year state senator term. You get a per diem amount of $152 depending upon how many days you are at the capitol. The legislature itself is only in session for 2 months, between January and March. Last year, legislators considered over 1,700 bills with slightly less than 200 passing. That’s about an 11% success rate for those scoring at home.
Path #3 - Path #3 lets you run as a state representative or state senator in a region where you are provided with a salary of $61,440 for your two-year term. You get $600 a month for expenses and a per diem of anywhere between $10 to $100, depending upon how far your travel to the capitol. In addition, you receive a paid parking spot, something that would cost a city resident $1,300 a year to maintain. The legislature is in session for 7 months from January through July but it is considered a full-time legislature and because of this designation, you receive a full benefits package including health and a retirement plan. Typically, this legislature will review roughly 3,800 bills a year with roughly 300 of them passing for an 8% success rate.
So which option do you choose?
Chances are, what you choose will vary by what stage you are at in your personal and professional life. If you are someone who wants to pursue a career in politics by making it your full-time job then clearly path #3 is your best option. If you can spare 2 months out of the year and have a way to supplement your income and/or a full-time job that provides you with freedom and flexibility to take extended time off then path #2 seems like an ideal fit. If you are someone who believes in the altruism of politics and that any person can make a difference and are in a stage of life where you don’t need an additional income, then path #1 seems like the best choice for you.
The point is that each of these three paths will attract different candidates for the position. But this begs the question: would each of these three legislatures be truly representative of the people they serve? What is gained by those who make up these legislatures? What is lost by those who cannot afford to become part of these legislatures? And what impact does the makeup of these legislatures have on the region’s politics?
Because this was more than a simple thought exercise. This was a very real example of the exact makeup of 3 different states on our eastern seaboard. Path #1 detailed the legislative makeup of New Hampshire. Path #2 detailed the legislative makeup of Florida. And path #3 detailed the legislative makeup of Massachusetts. The way that each legislature is composed greatly impacts how the state is governed and the repercussions of these legislative compositions can have a long-lasting impact that goes well beyond a single legislative session.
For example, in New Hampshire the part-time legislature tends to be made up of retirees who want to serve as a way to give back to their communities. As noble as this sounds, it tends to skew representation in a way that doesn’t accurately reflect the rest of the state. By having the majority of its legislature being older and not having to worry about statewide profiles, many legislators focus solely on issues that are important to those in their peer group. It also creates a culture where it is nearly impossible to mount unified opposition to the governor. In July of 2018, Republican Governor Chris Sununu signed a controversial voting bill that essentially would create a poll tax for out-of-state college students. Despite there being democratic opposition, this bill did not personally impact the majority of those in the legislature and thus, there was no mounted campaign against the bill. This, combined with the fact that legislators don’t typically have political ambitions, showcased how powerless a non-professional state legislature can be when it has to deal with controversial political issues.
With path #2, we see the real-life example of the state of Florida, America’s most-hated state come election season. Besides a convoluted voting process, Florida also excels at having one of the least-representative legislatures in the entire country. The reason for this is the structure of the state’s “hybrid” legislature where there exists a short, two-month, jam-packed legislative session. To be able to take off two months every year and not lose your job means you have to have a certain kind of job security. In the Florida legislature, there is an inordinate number of CEOs and lawyers for this exact reason: they can afford to take time off from their businesses or firms. Because of this structure, many more Republicans are in the state legislature than Democrats in what has become the quintessential purple state. In addition, many of the more lucrative government jobs like country commissioner tend to pay much better than the legislature. This becomes problematic as there is no true pipeline for Democratic candidates to rise through the ranks via traditional state politics. It’s why the best candidate the Democrats could field in 2016 against a very beatable Marco Rubio was Patrick Murphy, a 33-year-old millionaire who was in the process of serving his second term in Congress.
Finally, path #3 represents the professional, full-time legislature that is Massachusetts. This is a state with a clear political pipeline as up-and-coming Congressman Joe Kennedy, III and Senator Elizabeth Warren both have national profiles. Being in the state legislature is a full-time, year-round job and because of this, state representatives and senators are frequently visible throughout their districts, especially in the “off-season” months of August through December. Because of the prestige associated with the position, races tend to be competitive and there is always a thorough vetting process of someone before he or she takes on an incumbent legislator. Despite all this, the Massachusetts legislature is notoriously corrupt and many state residents see the need to balance a Democratic Party with the supermajority in both the state house and senate with a Republican governor. It’s why Mitt Romney served from 2003 to 2007 and why current Governor Charlie Baker just overwhelmingly won re-election with more support from Democrats than Republicans.
As citizens, it’s important to know how and why our state legislatures are made up the way that they are. Financial compensation and benefits vary wildly by state but knowing this information can help us get a sense for how any why those in our states choose to run for office and whether or not they feel they are justly compensated for their work. When a state legislature votes to raise its own pay, is that pay raise needed? Is the legislature salary comparable to the median annual salary of the state? Do state representatives receive a per diem, benefits, or other perks? Are those in the legislature already well-to-do financially? And, has the legislature been active enough to even warrant an increased salary or do legislators largely see themselves in a ceremonial, rather than practical position?
Lastly, knowing how your state’s legislature is comprised should serve as a window into potential candidates in your district. Why do they really want the position? Is it for altruistic reasons? Is it because they are already financially successfully and want to now influence policy? Is it because they have grandiose political aspirations and want to work their way up the pipeline by making connections? These are all important things to ask if we want to move toward creating a more representative democracy. By understanding the structure of state governments, we can begin to look at whether our not our elected officials are truly representative of the people they are required to represent. If they are not, then it’s time to find someone who is. Every legislator who gets into state government does so for a reason and often times that reason is not initially apparent. It’s only when we delve into the legislator’s background do we learn more about his or her truly motives.
And it is only then when we’ll know whether or not this legislator truly represents us.
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