Some state legislators who resign cannot afford to serve

HARTFORD, Connecticut (AP) – As he tried to decide whether to seek a fourth term in the House of Representatives in Connecticut, the rep. Joe de la Cruz the question of his wife, whom he jokingly refers to as his lawyer and financial adviser.

Although Tammy de la Cruz did not want to discourage her 51-year-old husband from stepping away from the part-time job he has grown to love, she acknowledged that it did not make economic sense for him to run again until November.

“The pension planner in her did not even have to use a calculator to work out,” Joe de la Cruz, a Democrat, told his colleagues in the House of Representatives when he announced in February that he was not seeking re-election. “The $ 30,000 a year we earn to do this famous job, that which we all really care about, is really not enough to live on. It really is not enough to retire.”

Lawmakers in other states, often those with part-time “citizen” lawmakers, have filed similar complaints. In Oregon, where the base salary is about $ 33,000 a year, three female state representatives announced in March that they were not seeking re-election because they could not afford to support their families on a part-time salary for what is actually full-time work. They called the situation “unsustainable” in a joint letter of resignation.

Connecticut lawmakers have not seen an increase in their $ 28,000 base salary in 21 years.

While it varies from state to state in terms of how legislative wages are adjusted, bills that increase legislators’ salaries were proposed in several states this year, including Connecticut, Georgia, Oregon and New Mexico, which is the country’s only unpaid legislator. So far, bills have faltered as some lawmakers fear ranking voters by approving their own pay raises.

It is also not clear whether higher wages will ultimately lead to more diversified legislators, something proponents of wage increases say are in jeopardy. A 2016 study published in the American Political Science Review stated that there was “surprisingly little empirical evidence” that raising politicians’ salaries would encourage more working-class people to run for political office. The study found that higher wages “do not seem to make political offices more attractive to workers; they do seem to make it more attractive to professionals who already earn high wages.”

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said he believes low wages, combined with the threats and strikes some lawmakers and their families have received over issues like COVID-19 rules, will deter people with modest means from running. And that often means colored people.

“It makes it more challenging for people who do not have much free time and have to rely on income to be able to perform their public service,” he said. “And that makes it a profession that is becoming more limited to the wealthy. And the wealthy in this country tend to be more white than colored.”

In Washington, Democratic Senator Mona Das, a child of immigrants from India who was first elected in 2018, recently announced on Facebook. that she is not seeking re-election. Part of the reason, she said, is the difficulties she has had in meeting her financial obligations on a salary from the state Senate. Senators in Washington earn $ 56,881 a year plus a daily allowance to compensate for the cost of living when the Legislature meets. Unemployment benefits rose from up to $ 120 a day to up to $ 185 a day this year, while wages are scheduled to rise to $ 57,876 on July 1st.

This year, about 71% of state legislators are white, 9% black, 6% Latin American and 2% Asian or Hawaiian, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Legislative chambers remain male-dominated on average. At the national level, about 29% of state legislators are women, up from about 25% five years ago.

There are about 1,600 Millennial and Gen Z individuals serving in state legislatures and in Congress nationwide, and the Millennial Action Project said the number has grown in recent years. Reggie Paros, chief program officer of the non-partisan political organization that supports lawmakers and members of Congress born after 1980, said younger lawmakers have not been in the workforce long enough to establish the necessary economic stability to compensate for a low-wage legislative job.

“The economic barrier is one of the biggest struggles to get into public office,” Paros said.

Political polarization is another potential deterrent for new participants.

“I think it’s getting harder for a lot of people to argue that they need to put themselves into the political maelstrom of what could come as a significant cost to their families,” said Peverill Squire, a professor of political science at University of Missouri. .

His research into how and why legislators change over time has found a “greater diversity on a variety of dimensions” in recent years. In Oregon, for example, women held the majority of seats in the State House of Representatives for the first time in 2021.

“But that change,” he said, “might become more difficult to achieve in the future if, in fact, the compensation often offered for legislative services lags behind what most people would need to support during their working years. themselves and their families. ”

As De la Cruz, a union sheet metal worker, leaves the office, he said there will be no employed construction workers serving in the Connecticut General Assembly, no matter who works as a Walmart cashier or a gas station attendant. He argues that it is important to have these voices of “lay people” represented on the State Capitol.

“It’s a big concern for me,” de la Cruz said. “Ordinary people, like ordinary workers, do not see the value in other workers up there for them … They do not understand that my voice … is about as close to a voice as they are going to have.”

Connecticut Representative Bob Godfrey, a 17-year-old Danbury Democrat who has proposed legislation to increase wages for at least five years, recalled a plumber, manufacturing assembly line worker and a meter reader who served with him in the House in his early days. Godfrey, who relies on his legislative pay and social security to pay his bills, said he fears the shortage of workers “skews policy-making toward the wealthy” in Connecticut.

“We do not look like the state,” he said.

In New Mexico, a Senate panel this year approved a proposed constitutional amendment to provide a salary to legislators who are currently collecting a daily scholarship of approx. $ 165 during legislative sessions and for travel. Democratic Sen. Katie Duhigg of Albuquerque argued that a salary would “really expand the universe of people capable of earning,” noting that the legislature “is largely the rich and retired.” But action on the proposal was postponed indefinitely.

Earlier this year in Alaska, lawmakers rejected a plan it would have raised their annual base salary from $ 50,400 to $ 64,000. It has not been changed since 2010. But the same proposal would have limited their daily $ 307 per annuity for expenses like food and lodging to $ 100 and required receipts for claims. Some lawmakers complained that $ 100 would not be enough to cover the cost of living in Juneau, the state capital, during the session.

Late. Mike Shower, a Republican from Wasilla, Alaska, raised concerns about the consequences of low pay in a letter to the State Officers’ Compensation Commission, which proposed the revised pay and unemployment benefit plan.

“If there is not a good compensation package,” he wrote, “how do we get decent public servants who are not wealthy, retired, or have the luxury of a spouse with a good enough job to support someone as a legislator?”

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Associated Press writer Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Washington; Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Andrew Selsky in Salem, Oregon; and Becky Bohrer of Juneau, Alaska contributed to this report.

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