To better represent Kansans, we citizens should press for better pay for our lawmakers. This is a simple statement, and such a change would not guarantee better policies, however they are defined. But without question, higher salaries would produce a Legislature that looks a lot more like the overall population of the state.
Let’s be clear. The argument here is that governmental structures and processes powerfully affect the policies that legislatures, governors and courts produce.
In Kansas, Secretary of State Kris Kobach consistently sought to restrict access to the polls through harsh registration and voting rules. He succeeded only in part, but his policies might well have resulted in a couple of Kansas Senate districts electing conservative Republicans rather than Democrats (or moderate Republicans). That is important, even crucial. Had one less conservative Republican been elected to the state senate in 2016, a good year for moderates of both parties, Medicaid expansion would likely have passed in 2019.
In short, process can and does affect substantive outcomes, time and again.
Which gets us to the issue of salaries for state legislators. Across the country, these salaries vary tremendously, from zero in New Mexico and $200 a year in New Hampshire to $107,000 annually in California, and that’s before “per diem” expenses ($192/day for California) are included. Kansas lawmakers receive $88.66 per day, or $9,000 for a 90-day legislative session. They do receive $144 in per diem payments, to cover expenses, but even that adds up only to about $23,000.
Advocates for a vaunted “citizen legislature” will argue that such compensation is more than adequate for a part-time job and that we don’t want to create a so-called “professional legislature.”
That’s baloney. Rather such minimal compensation, among the lowest in the nation, excludes most citizens from serving. Most working class individuals, single heads of households and younger professionals simply cannot afford to serve. Nor do we get the mid-career lawyers, farmers and bankers that once served with distinction. The costs of serving are simply too high.
What we get are retired individuals (often professionals), a handful of young people (mostly single), spouses who can afford to take a low-paying job and some lucky folks whose employers are willing to help subsidize their service. All this means that our representatives do not look at all like our population in terms of wealth or occupation. And we haven’t even addressed the issues of under-representation of minorities and women.
Establishing a salary that approaches the median of state compensation — around $45,000 — while maintaining a decent (say, $100/day) per diem would do a lot to attract a wider range of candidates and legislators. It would also reduce the number of real and potential conflicts among legislators, who would no longer need to work for interests that seek to influence them.
Most importantly, a Legislature that looks more like the state’s population would likely enact substantive policies that reflect the wishes of the electorate. Almost certainly, this would start with expanding Medicaid, but it would also include action on criminal justice reform, eliminating sales taxes on food purchases, and strengthening the delivery of services that affect every Kansan.
In sum, the rules of governing affect policy outcomes. The state could take a giant step forward by making legislative service a reasonable option for far more of its citizens.
Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas. He can be reached at email@example.com.