If you want more diverse representation, shorten the session.
by Rob Roper
There is an old joke around the Vermont State House that says the only people who serve are those who need $10K and those who don’t need $10K. It highlights a real problem that our legislature is made up disproportionately of retirees, who could use an extra ten grand to help pay their property taxes, and wealthy “trust funders,” who just toss their legislative pay on the pile with the rest of it. The other category that the joke misses is full time activists whose employers essentially pay them to be elected lobbyists for their particular special interest. For them the $10 grand (actually closer to $12,000) is just a taxpayer funded year-end bonus.
I do sympathize with the dilemma that serving in Montpelier is not well compensated. I do agree that we would be much better off as a state if more people who worked for a living – as in those who can’t take four-and-a-half months off every year because they have jobs – could participate. Do the folks who do serve today deserve more than they currently receive? Probably. However….
We do not want, nor does Vermont need a full time, professional political class. These people are a big enough menace as it is with the time and resources they already have.
Instead of paying our elected lawmakers more money, what we really should do is decrease the time commitment. Instead of forcing folks to huddle under the Golden Dome from January to mid-May (or beyond) every year, how about we take a page out of Virginia’s constitution and do thirty calendar days in odd years and sixty in even years. Certainly, if a state of over 8.5 million people with an annual budget of $75 billion can wrap things up in two months/one month, Vermont having to manage just 640,000 people shouldn’t even need that long to parcel out a mere $8 billion.
Or, looking at states of similar population to Vermont, Wyoming meets for just forty days in the odd years and twenty in the even years. This is how “citizen legislatures” are supposed to operate.
But here in Vermont, S.39, An act relating to compensation and benefits for members of the Vermont General Assembly, comes before the full senate for a vote this week.
Some of the things this bill does: It nearly doubles the weekly salary of a rank-and-file legislator to $1,210, or just over $19,000 for sixteen four-day weeks. Over the rest of the year when not in session, and this is an entirely new thing, they will get paid “an amount equal to one-fifth of the annually adjusted weekly compensation. That’s another $242 a week or $8,712. So, we’re up to about $28,000 per year.
Also new is health insurance benefits provided through the state, stipends for childcare and/or elder care of up to $1600, and new rules around per diem meal ($67 per day), travel, and lodging ($127 per night) reimbursements that make legal all the little cheats legislators had to pull on the sly to pocket the cash while secretly carpooling and brown bagging their lunches.
According to the Joint Fiscal Office, the cost to the taxpayer of all these new benefits, when they fully kick in, will be $4,759,000 annually by 2026. That’s an additional $26,439 per legislator. No, it’s not going to get you on a Forbes list, but it’s getting to a point where you could get by not doing much of anything else, which is their point – but misses the point of having people in office who also hold real jobs.
Even more concerning than the concrete changes wrought by S.39 is the “Working Group” it establishes to look into things like, whether even more supplemental compensation should be provided to members who hold leadership positions, including caucus leaders and committee chairs. It will consider adding caucus staff and possibly allowing members to hire at public expense their own personal staff. And if, just maybe, the legislature should meet year-round.
Again, Vermont is a state of 640,000 people with a (temporarily oversized with federal bailout money) budget of $8 billion. There are twenty-five U.S. cities bigger than we are. Rather than give these people a raise we should fire them all and elect a mayor and a council of a dozen or so individuals to manage the place.
We have a small population, a small geographic footprint, and a small economy. But we do have some things that are bigger here than anywhere else in the United States, bar none: political egos.
And that is what S.39 is really about: feeding those political egos. The folks running the show in Montpelier feel like they are saving the world and deserve all the trappings that go with that mighty calling. What’s more, it shouldn’t be expected of them that their talents be distracted by other mundane tasks such as other gainful employment. They want to be a full-time, full-pay class of political elites who do nothing but figure out ways to meddle in the lives everyone else 24/7/365.
Nope. No thanks!
Instead, if we shorten the legislative session to sixty days in year one and thirty days in year two we can not only save money, but attract candidates for office who can hold full time jobs outside of the legislature, are focused on public service rather than public employment (there is a difference), and due to time constraints if nothing else, will have to focus on the fundamentals of managing key elements of state government and not the latest cause celeb coming out of California. That sounds like much better deal to me.
Rob Roper is a freelance writer who has been involved with Vermont politics and policy for over 20 years. This article reprinted with permission from Behind the Lines: Rob Roper on Vermont Politics, robertroper.substack.com