Roper: Unrepresentative, under-qualified legislature gives itself a massive pay raise

Their argument; not mine

by Rob Roper

The Vermont House and Senate often disagree on what priorities should be (childcare or paid family leave?) or the best way to pay for a program (income tax or payroll tax?), but on this point they heartily agree: they themselves deserve a lot more money. Yes, after much scratching of chins, wrinkling of brows, and judicious nodding, our elected representatives have determined that their job of figuring out how to take more money out of our pockets deserves more of that money going into their own pockets.

The new compensation package passed in S.39, An act relating to compensation and benefits for members of the Vermont General Assembly, includes roughly a doubling of each legislator’s base salary, additional income for time when not in session, provisions making it easier to trade meal/milage/lodging per diems for cash, and taxpayer provided health insurance. Overall, it brings compensation for service in our “citizen legislature” from about $14,000 a year to well over $50,000 per year. According to the Joint Fiscal Office analysis of the bill, it will ultimately cost taxpayers an extra $4.7 million or so per year to foot this bill.

It’s not fair to paste all legislators with the brush of self-important, self-indulgent, spendthrifts. 10 senators and forty-four representatives did vote no to this atrocity, and their attitudes were summed up nicely by Rep. Casey Toof (R-St. Albans), who explained his vote, “I vote no because the audacity it takes to raise our pay by 50% while simultaneously raising our budget by 13% and numerous taxes and fees is unconscionable.” Yeah, pretty much.

Rep. Casey Toof (R-St. Albans). “The audacity it takes to raise our pay by 50% while simultaneously raising our budget by 13% and numerous taxes and fees is unconscionable.”

But as poignant as the minority objections to the bill were, the statements made by the majority in justifying giving themselves this massive pay raise were ironically funny.

The gist of these faux-moralizing rationalizations was primarily along the lines of, because a legislator’s pay is so low the quality of candidates who are ultimately able to step forward and serve is degraded, and it results in a make-up of the General Assembly that is unreflective of the population it’s supposed to serve. Of course, if this is indeed the case, it means our current legislature that has come to power under these conditions is definitionally – and self-admittedly – less qualified to do the job and less representative of the people it’s supposed to represent than it should be. And, I’ve got to say, witnessing the ditch they’ve driven our state into over the past two decades, it’s really hard to argue against this point!

However, as one might expect from an under-qualified and unrepresentative collection of leftover brains scraped from the bottom of the population barrel, they have again hit on the wrong solution to a real problem.

It is a real problem that more qualified people don’t run for office. Last November, roughly 40 percent of the 180 state house (150) and senate (30) races went uncontested, and many of the candidates who did ultimately step forward to challenge an incumbent did so at the last minute as a desperation ballot appointee after no one else stepped forward before the primary. This check-the-box and wave-the-flag kind of candidacy is almost never a real threat and is in some ways worse than having no-one run at all as it creates the illusion of voters making a choice where in reality there isn’t one.  

The problem this creates is not so much one of diversity but of accountability. The voters can’t hold incumbent legislators accountable by “throwing the bums out” if nobody runs against the bums. The bums get automatically re-elected no matter what they do, and have no incentive to listen to their constituents because, hey, what are you going to fire me? (See the roll call votes in favor of the Clean Heat Standard bill despite 90% opposition from constituent phone calls and emails.) The end result is you get a ruling class of unaccountable bums. And here we are!

There are solutions for keeping a truly qualified and desirable citizen legislature, which is defined as a legislature in which the elected officials take time away from their real world jobs to serve, as opposed to a professional legislature wherein elected service is a full-time job. This is where S.39 is taking us. The most obvious solution is cutting down the time commitment.

Rep. Gina Galfetti (R-Barre Town), who’s real job is owning and operating a small painting business, pointed out that restricting the legislative session to three months a year as opposed to five would make it a whole lot easier for folks like her to serve. Much larger states with more complicated economies than Vermont have significantly shorter legislative sessions. New Mexico and Virginia, for example, meet for 60 calendar days in odd years and 30 in even. Wyoming, a state about the same population size as Vermont, meets for 40 and 20 business days in the odd and even year respectively. Texas, as Vermont used to do, meets every two years instead of every year. It can be done!

Another problem of Vermont’s own making – one admittedly not as easily solved — is that we have way too many state representatives for our population. We have 150 state representatives – one for every 4300 people. Colorado, on the other hand, has just 65 state representatives, each representing approximately 77,500 citizens. Wyoming, again the state closest to Vermont in population, has 62 state representatives. Another smaller state, South Dakota, has just 70. Quality over quantity seems to work.

As one representative from Bennington remarked during debate over S.39, “Imagine that you’ve got all 4000 people [from a Vermont House district] in front of you, and you asked all of them who is interested in serving in the legislature. Probably the vast majority of them would say, not for me. Who would remain? Think about the people in our communities who do want to serve. Great! Next, it’s important for you to know that if you have a job you’ll have to take off about five months a year. Now who’s left over? Maybe people who don’t need a job because they are retired or independently wealthy. Maybe some entrepreneurs with flexible hours. But maybe there are a handful of working-class Vermonters who say this matters to me. I’m going to make it work.”

This is an excellent overview of the problem – it’s a labor force issue. Keep in mind that from this minuscule pool of willing and able candidates we also need to find select board members, school board members, listers, dog catchers, etc. If you really want to see competitive House races, cut the number of seats in half and let the incumbents run against each other. Long-term, double the available pool of candidates for each seat. But increasing the pay scale is not going to appreciably increase this limited scope of our human resources.

And the folks who voted for this pay raise know this. They don’t want to see a competitive candidate run against them in 2024 or any other election year. They aren’t interested in seeing a more diverse or more “reflective” General Assembly. If a one-legged, transgender person of color with a PhD in economics asked one of these incumbents to step down and allow them to serve in their place I seriously doubt a single hand would go up to volunteer for the benefit the common good.

They know incumbents get re-elected at a 90 percent-plus rate. They know that if they run again, odds are they will be back, many still unopposed, only collecting a much bigger paycheck for performing at the same sub-par, non-responsive level they’ve been getting away with all along.

The author is a free-lance writer and long time Vermont policy analyst. He publishes Behind the Lines on Substack.

Categories: Commentary, Uncategorized

15 replies »

  1. But how would we be able to survive without those disingenuous leaches bleeding us dry for anything less than 5 months every year ???????

  2. Rob Roper must be a heck of a marksman, he seems to hit the bullseye every time he pulls out a pen!

  3. Mr. Roper….I do not think that the fleecing of the Vermont taxpayer could have been described any better. And I could not agree more with your summation. This is nothing more than a shameful money grab by a group of greedy, self absorbed, pseudo politicians who, by their own words, admit to being under qualified, non representatives of the people that elected them. But, actually, who wouldn’t like an all expenses paid, $50,000 / year job where you don’t even have to work the entire year and STILL GET PAID while you are not working? And where even if you are doing a lousy job, you can still vote yourself a raise, because – who can stop you? What a sad, sad state of affairs. I fear Vermont is circling the drain….

  4. Remember you Vermont tax payers this is from the leftist liberal Dem Swamp Rats 🐀 period!! $$$$$ when will you folks in Vermont wake up the liberal leftist Dem don’t care about you WAKE UP!! YOU SNOOZE YOU LOSE PERIOD!! AT THE POLL ON NOVEMBER 2024 VOTE OUT

  5. Kind of makes you wish VT had a voter referendum provision in the State Constitution, doesn’t it?

  6. So the take away is the arrangement is completely broken and corrupted yet the people/voters continue to support it. Who are the fools?

  7. All the while screwing working Vermonters over with garbage like the Unaffordable Heating Act. These people are real saints.

  8. Guessing most in Vermont would be in favor of doubling the salaries of those politicians if they would just stay home and cause less harm by their legislation.

  9. It’s gone past saving; we’re now in a catch 22. Even if we could field additional and viable candidates from every town, until we deal with the corrupt ERIC system and Dominion voting machines, your vote doesn’t count.

    Good article Rob. Keep them coming.

  10. Badlands Media has some good takes on the current state of affairs in several categories, but on energy — specifically, the push to corral us into only electricity — is well stated in this post:

  11. The Vermont Republican party ought to ask itself why it cannot recruit electable candidates to serve in the state legislature. One party rule is not a good thing in the long run, but as long as the party establishment panders to extremists that’s what we will have.
    I’ll be interested in seeing how many of the legislators who vote against this bill actually refuse this long overdue increase in pay and benefits and how many were merely pandering to constituents with short memories.

  12. The good news is that this is the final nail in the coffin of the Progressive, Dim, RINO, members of our Legislature. They are now headed for extinction.

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