by Tom Koch
Question: Who do you know who is slated to get a raise of 23% plus? Answer: Your local legislator! And what’s more, that’s only part of the story—it gets worse!
Last week, the Vermont Senate voted 19-10 to pass bill number S.39, “An act relating to compensation and benefits for members of the Vermont General Assembly.” The bill provides for huge increases in legislative pay. And since there is always an explanation for doing the wrong thing, the justification given for passing this bill is to make it easier for young working people, single mothers, and others to serve in the legislature without making a huge financial sacrifice. Now, if you believe that legislators currently in office are looking to make it easier for more people to run against them, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you!
Here is the reality. Beginning January 1, 2025, legislative pay will go from $811.00 per week while the legislature is in session to $1,000.00—a 23% increase! That will be followed by a further increase, to $1,100.00 per week, as of January 1, 2026—another 10%. And each of these increases is augmented by “an adjustment consistent with the compensation increase provided to other constitutional officers” for those years (whatever that turns out to be!) The bill also has a totally new provision—compensation for one day per week (or one-fifth of the weekly rate) while the legislature is in adjournment—generally from late May until the first week in January! This is because legislators have “constituent work” to do, such as answering phone calls and attending public meetings that they don’t otherwise get paid for!
In addition, each legislator is entitled to reimbursement for meals for each day the legislature is in session at the federal rate, currently $69.00 per day. Who do you know who spends $69.00 per day on meals—especially when legislators are treated to a long string of free luncheons and dinners sponsored by lobbyists and others?!
That’s not all! Legislators are entitled to reimbursement for travel between home and Montpelier, and for any other legislative business, at the rate of 65.5 cents per mile. And finally, for the first time, legislators will be entitled to health insurance available to state employees, on the same terms as employees of the executive branch.
There’s a long history to this. When I was first elected to the legislature in 1976 (ancient history, I know!), legislative compensation was $150.00 per week, plus a modest reimbursement for meals and mileage. It wasn’t a “living wage,” but in those days, nobody thought of serving for the money. Over the years, legislative pay was adjusted periodically and then neglected for varying periods of time. It was all very sporadic and irregular. In 2005, the legislature set its pay at $589.00 per week, but then, to avoid the varying periods of neglect, a provision was added to mandate annual adjustment of legislative pay equal to the cost of living increases negotiated for state employees. That is how legislative pay came to be the current amount of $811.00 per week. It is important to note that the current bill repeals the automatic cost of living adjustment; the result will be either a return to periods of neglect and stagnation of legislative pay, or a virtual guarantee that our esteemed legislators will regularly revisit the subject, resulting in ever-increasing additions to their own pay. I give you one guess which it will be!
One hint is that the bill creates a “working group” consisting of three Senators and three Representatives that is charged with considering: “whether current salaries and benefits, including those added or increased by this act, are sufficient and, if not, how they should be increased;” “whether members should be offered additional benefits, including reimbursement for child, dependent, and elder care;” “whether changes to staffing are necessary, such as…adding caucus staff and adding personal staff or providing members with an allowance to hire their own personal staff;” and “whether changes should be made to the length or structure of the legislative session.” The working group is to report its findings on or before next January 15, so hold onto you hat, because more is coming!
What is coming, in fact, is the end of our citizen legislature and the beginning of a professional class of legislators, for whom legislating is their occupation. Look at New York and California as examples. And look at the corruption that comes with professional, full-time legislatures. Thanks, but no thanks. I’d rather have good ol’ traditional Vermont!
You may be able to keep you hat, but your wallet is another story. What all this will cost is a matter of conjecture, since there are unknown factors, such as the length of the session in any given year. But for starters, the bill contains an appropriation for the fiscal year beginning this July in the amount of $853,000.00 just to cover the expense of providing health insurance for legislators. And if we calculate the increases in salary for 2025, when the first pay increase takes effect, the difference is $189.00 per week for 180 legislators for an estimated 17 weeks, or $578,340.00. But that’s just my “back of the envelope” calculation, and I’m sure that the cost of this bill is much greater.
Governor Scott has expressed his possible support for this bill, provided that the length of legislative sessions is shortened. The Governor should reconsider his position. The fact is that any promises made this year to shorten the session can be broken next year. It is well recognized in the State House that one legislature cannot bind any ensuing legislature. Any rule can be broken, suspended, or changed. Any law enacted by one legislature can be repealed, or in legislative lingo, the legislature can “notwithstand” the law. The only thing that can effectively limit the length of legislative sessions is a constitutional amendment, and that is not even on the horizon. Many states have constitutional limits on the length of their legislative sessions, and there is no reason why Vermont cannot work with such limits as well. Maybe that way, the stated reason for the present bill (to allow a more diverse group of citizens a chance to serve) would be fulfilled. Meanwhile, Governor Scott should not trust any assurances given to him about shorter sessions in order to buy his support for this monstrosity of a bill.
Speaking of the Vermont Constitution, it might be appropriate to recall one of the provisions that people seem to enjoy ignoring, Article II, Section 61, which reads, in relevant part:
But if any person is called into public service to the prejudice of that person’s private affairs, the person has a right to a reasonable compensation; and whenever an office through increase of fees or otherwise, becomes so profitable as to occasion many to apply for it, the profit ought to be lessened by the Legislature.
While there seems to be great concern for the first half of that provision, the second half is effectively ignored, for who can deny that we have a good many candidates seeking public office, including seats in the legislature, every two years?”
This is a Senate bill, and the good news is that before it goes to the Governor, it needs to be considered and passed by the House. The bad news is that this year, the House has exhibited spendthrift tendencies more than the Senate, and before the House is finished, the bill will probably be even worse, perhaps restoring some provisions that were modified or eliminated in the Senate. We’ll see, but I don’t think we’ll like what we see.
Legislators who vote for this bill are using both hands. One hand is being used to dip into the public till; the second hand is being used to thumb their noses at the taxpayers! If they really believe that the purpose of this bill is to allow more Vermonters to serve in the legislature, let’s oblige them. I usually don’t like single-issue voting, but in this case, I’d make an exception. Let’s make sure that every legislator who votes for this bill—every single one of them—is replaced in the elections in 2024!
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Scribblings” originated as a report on legislative affairs while the writer was a member of the Vermont House of Representatives from Barre Town. Since then, it has been written less frequently and with less focus on the legislature and more of whatever happens to move the writer. If you are not on the distribution list and wish to be added, simply send your name, town of residence, and email address to TomKochVT@gmail.com. If you are currently on the distribution list and wish to be removed, make that request at the same address—no offense taken.