Oregon’s leaders need long-term strategies

In this Jan. 9, 2017, file photo, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown delivers her inaugural speech to Oregon legislators in the Capitol House chambers in Salem.

Oregon’s Legislature is proposing Senate Bill 959, which addresses legislative financial compensation. As it stands, Oregon lawmakers earn $31,200 a year and a $149 per diem payment for meals and lodging, roughly averaging around $2,000 a month. SB 959 changes the way Oregon legislators are compensated by correlating it to the annual average salary of all Oregonians — increasing policy-maker’s pay by about 63 percent.

Pro: There’s a common mantra that politicians are paid too much and do too little. The point is well taken. But is this notion based on fact or frustration? More importantly, does it represent the best analytical framework?

At first glance, who among us is going to rally behind a roughly $20,000 pay increase for our lawmakers? Probably more folks than you might think. Oregonians and their unique character should benefit from an equally unique representative legislature. The problem: Low-end legislative salaries preclude many qualified voices from representing a large constituency of Oregonians.

Consequentially, the current system benefits independently wealthy or retired individuals — often out of touch with the people they represent. Where are the teachers, the social workers or the nurses? Do we not benefit from a demographically well-rounded legislative body?

It’s time to accept that the same demographic that’s been running this state for years could use some diversity. Perhaps they could even learn a thing or two from those in the middle-income bracket who work with common Oregonians daily. Furthermore, tying salaries to average incomes will affect lawmakers the same as the rest of us during economic downturns.

According to nonpartisan think tank FiveThirtyEight, a Missouri lawmaker, noting insufficient funding, described lobbyists as “unpaid staff.” Is that what we want in Oregon?

And while it’s easy to falsely presume the motivation behind a proposed wage increase as greed, research out of Stanford University, according to FiveThirtyEight, suggests that lawmakers asking for raises “are responding to the demands of an increasingly complicated job … to be compensated adequately for the work they are already doing.”

The fact of the matter is this: Current legislative salaries make it nearly impossible to survive on that income alone, but it’s also difficult to maintain sustainable work while requiring so much of the year off. Again, this restricts middle-class but competent wage earners from running for office while paving the way for the wealthier among us. Is that representative democracy?

Con: In a world of pure intentions and perfect outcomes, giving Oregon’s legislators a $20,000 annual pay raise could make the state a more equally represented place.

But in reality, there’s little evidence that such a raise would achieve that goal. And it certainly would move the state government even further from its founding principle of being led by a citizen legislature.

Forget the additional $1.8 million it would cost taxpayers to cover the raises. Think about the job we want our legislators to do, and why it should pay the equivalent of a full year’s salary for the average Oregonian.

What we want are representatives who can bring their expertise in a variety of trades and their knowledge of their home constituencies to the statehouse for one sustained session every two years. They need to be knowledgeable in the workings of state government, but more focused on being a conduit and voice for their district than a full-time professional politician.

Also, the biennial “short session” year shouldn’t warrant a full year’s salary. It should follow its original purpose of adjusting the budget when necessary and addressing true emergencies between sessions. In the decade since it was implemented, it has gone far off course.

While raising the pay may draw more candidates, it’s unlikely to change the complexion of the legislature. Self-funded, white-collar candidates will still have the upper hand when it comes to campaigning, and would be even more incentivized to run for the higher salary.

Instead, state leaders should consider ways other than pay to attract a more diverse body. For instance, an educator might be willing to step out of the school if the job was directed toward developing and implementing policies they care about instead of juggling hundreds of bills and lobbyists and murky politics. Same goes for a contractor, a farmer or any other profession that is sorely under-represented in the statehouse.

Having a comfortable income shouldn’t be a requirement for representation. But instead of letting legislators give themselves a raise, we should find ways to make the job more welcoming, achievable and satisfying to the average Oregonian.

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