Bill Schubart: Current legislative compensation favors people of privilege

Members of the press watch the House of Representatives from the balcony of the Chamber on the opening day of the Legislature at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Tuesday January 4, 2022. Members of the press and public have been detained on the balconies of the House and Senate because of Parliament due to Covid19. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

This comment comes from Hinesburg resident Bill Schubart, author of nine nonfiction books, former VPR radio commentator, and regular columnist for VTDigger.

Two weeks ago I wrote about the extension of the governorship and legislative term from two years to four years. Since then, a good friend and dear former state archivist, Gregory Sanford, sent me a history of efforts to change the Vermont Constitution, detailing how many times such an attempt had been tried and failed.

Today’s screed addresses our stingy legal compensation and support system.

In 2003, the Snelling Center was commissioned to conduct a study on “Remuneration for Government Services.” This should include legislators and executive branch positions identified in 32VSA sec. 1003(b) and judicial positions contained in 32VSA sec. 1003(c). Attendees included Fred Allen, Tim O’Connor, Al Wakefield, Con Hogan, Ray Keyser, Kathy Hoyt, Jan Eastman, Dick Mallary, Glenn McRae, myself, Josh Henkin and Bill Russell of the Legislative Council.

The nature of the positions was deemed relevant to the compensation philosophy. As an an example:

  • executive — Two-year election cycle. Jobs require leadership, fair selection processes and citizenship. The job description depends on the administration in charge and its political priorities.
  • Judicial — Professional experience or at least six years. Very good benefits package, so these holders tend to stay long term. Independent of voters.
  • legislation – usually temporary; positive value of having new perspectives and perspectives; two-year election cycle.

Although the governor’s salary was significantly lower then, our current governor makes $184,000 a year. I would suggest this is appropriate, and I think most Vermonters would agree. But as I said in my last column, non-public business leaders would find the CEO job of running an $8 billion company at that salary ridiculous, especially with a two-year contract.

As noted in the Snelling Center study group, judicial positions required little attention because they were generally considered to be well-paid and attractive to available talent.

So the legal compensation swallowed up the lion’s share of our consideration.

The position of the legislature has changed significantly over time. Up until the 1960s, our large farming community was a source of many local legislators, and the legislative calendar reflected the seasonality of Vermont’s agricultural community—which it still does—that allowed farmers to serve in Montpelier. But since that time, agriculture has declined, and the number of dairy farms in Vermont has dwindled from about 8,000 in my youth to about 650 today.

Agriculture and agricultural technology have also changed radically in recent years, reducing traditional seasonality. Also, like so much in Vermont, farming can be divided into what we might call “chosen enterprise” and “survival enterprise.” Today, there are approximately 6,800 farms in Vermont, reflecting the increasing variety of crops and livestock production. Therefore, seasonality is significantly less relevant to the Legislative Service.

The Vermont legislature is a part-time legislature (of which there are 14 nationally) as opposed to a hybrid (26) or full-time legislature (10). Vermont lawmakers make $743 a week during the session.

Members commuting to Montpelier receive a mileage allowance and a meal allowance for meals each day they are in session. Those renting a room in Montpelier will be reimbursed for board and lodging for each day of the meeting. You’ll also earn return miles once a week.

If the Legislature meets for five to six months, total compensation less expenses would range from $16,100 to $19,318 for the session. This is about the average for other state legislatures across the country that use a part-time model. This extrapolates to $38,600 per year, but the extrapolation is meaningless when working full-time for half a year precludes working the other half of the year.

One of the biggest challenges our group saw was that states like Vermont, where lawmakers must set their own salaries, have what is called a “wage problem.” The public perception of lawmakers voting themselves for a pay rise can be negative and even used against them in re-election campaigns. Therefore, much emphasis has been placed on addressing this issue.

It was agreed that statutory redress could best be advanced through two elements. One was to automate the problem or create an algorithm that would set the compensation and take it out of the hands of the legislature.

The second based this algorithm on the fiscal well-being of the governed. Therefore, our group believed that Vermont median household income would be the right driver for such an algorithm.

For example, in 2020, the median household income in Vermont was $63,500. If the legislature served six months, that would put each congressman’s income at $31,750 for six months of service, about double what it is now. The number would be mathematically tied to the number of days the legislature was in session.

Doubling compensation for lawmakers can have significant costs, but the downside can ultimately cost more.

Few Vermonters can afford public service. The current compensation is completely incompatible with the judiciary and the executive branch. Over time, our “citizen legislature” will become “privileged” legislature, where only those who can afford to run for office will run for office. And when the majority of lawmakers are “privileged,” then the nature of legislation changes.

A recent conversation with a friend and official was a case in point. While I support decriminalization, I have complained about the time and energy lawmakers have put into developing marijuana as a business venture. Having lived in Vermont since 1947, I found that I didn’t know anyone who wanted marijuana and didn’t have it, but I did know many who couldn’t afford a home, college, or access to health care or nutrition — hardly the problems of privileges.

The other issue we discussed had to do with the support and policy research that a popular legislature needs and deserves to be effective.

In the Snelling administration, Vermont had a Strategic Planning Council that was available to all branches of government for research and information on proposed policy making. A later government abolished it to “save money”.

As I have said, the nature of legislative work today is very different from decades ago when the issues were fairly clear and understandable.

Today’s “complex systems” require the ability to research, integrate data, and examine and evaluate how others have solved some of our toughest challenges. The “summer study committee” is no longer enough. We need a team of dedicated researchers, policy experts and innovative thinkers available to support the difficult work of creating cost-effective policy embedded in the law.

The paltry sums of money we shave off our “affordability agenda” by paying lawmakers less than they can live and increasing their significant burden of having to do their own policy research is a mini-penny plan , which minimizes the utility of Vermont ‘s dedicated public employees .

We need a legislature composed of elected Vermonters from all walks of life, which is expressed across the full spectrum of differences—race, gender, geography, and economy. Only then can we create intelligent, strategic law that will make us a better state.

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