Third-party ads that targeted State Senator Tony Vargas during his recent run for U.S. Congress featured voices of disbelief, bewildered by a seemingly selfish decision: He wanted to “double his own salary” with taxpayers’ money.
What the ads didn’t say: Nebraska’s 49 lawmakers have been paid $12,000 a year since George HW Bush was first elected president, leggings were all the rage, and “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley was aired without irony by the boomboxes. If their salaries had kept pace with inflation since 1988, senators today would earn more than $30,000.
Low salaries are affecting the makeup of Nebraska’s legislature, lawmakers and experts say.
The average age of Nebraska lawmakers is 57. Most are retired, semi-retired or able to take time off from their main job.
Senator Wendy DeBoer works 80 hours a week while the Nebraska Legislature is in session.
But the work does not stop at the session. DeBoer, an Omaha-area Democrat recently reelected to the officially nonpartisan Legislature, estimates she spends 8 to 20 hours a week on legislative work when it’s not in session. Go to meetings, attend hearings and talk to constituents.
This made it difficult to continue his previous work as a university assistant professor. This fall, for the first time since her election, she taught at Hastings College.
The National Conference of State Legislatures counts Nebraska among 26 “hybrid” legislatures where the work is more than two-thirds of a full-time job, but the pay is too low to be a person’s sole income.
That means relying more on summaries written by others, DeBoer said.
“By requiring our legislators to have another job…we necessarily give outsized voices to lobbyists and interested stakeholders,” she said.
Senators are paid $1,000 per month and may be reimbursed for certain expenses.
They don’t receive benefits, but can sign up for state health insurance — plans with monthly premiums up to about three times higher than a senator’s salary before taxes.
Nebraska’s base salary is in the bottom five among similar legislatures. By comparison, lawmakers in Iowa earn $25,000, those in Missouri $36,813 and those in Oklahoma $47,500.
Most Nebraskans couldn’t afford the job, said Peverill Squire, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri. Squire researched state legislatures for decades and created the “Squire Index,” a measure of the professionalism of bodies.
“You’re asking a lot of people to run for the Legislative Assembly, put up with all the stuff that comes with political service these days, and bring it in – for most people that would be a pretty significant financial cost,” he said.
At least nine Nebraska senators are retired, semi-retired or not currently working, according to their online biographies and reports from Flatwater Free Press. Eight are farmers. There are five business owners, five lawyers, five in real estate, four in banking and finance, and three nonprofit executives.
Those juggling the legislature with a day job often lose income.
Amanda McGill Johnson, a Democrat who represented a Lincoln-area district until a limited term in 2015, found working at a tech company, ad agency and the YWCA proved incompatible.
So she accepted a job at a Target store.
“I wanted to be able to make being a state senator my top priority, and it’s very difficult to find work that will work around that,” said McGill Johnson, who now sits on the Millard school board and runs Nebraska Cures. and Research Nebraska. .
Even those whose careers seem more attainable face a balancing act.
Albion Senator Tom Briese grows corn and soybeans near Boone. He farms full time as soon as he leaves Lincoln. But the work overlaps when the session lasts until June.
“The perfect time to plant is when you’re in Lincoln,” said Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams, a Republican who was a full-time farmer when he joined the Legislative Assembly four years ago.
Briese, also a Republican, said a few part-timers kept the farm running while he was away.
Some pivot their career entirely. Senator Justin Wayne, a Democrat from Omaha, practiced criminal and juvenile law. But people don’t choose when they enter the justice system, so he couldn’t choose when he worked, he said. He moved on to other types of law, such as personal injury, essentially “starting all over again.”
Many grab all the hours they can for their main job. Several senators confirmed that lawmakers often do other work on the floor during the session.
Senator Anna Wishart of Lincoln, a Democrat, is the director of government affairs and external relations for Monolith Materials, a Nebraska-based producer of clean hydrogen and carbon black. She does the company’s federal and global policy work, she said.
She said she was not lobbying the state and abstaining from voting, such as a proposal, backed by Monolith, that would allow Nebraska to apply for grants as a “hydrogen hub.”
In all, the Flatwater Free Press spoke with a dozen current and former lawmakers. They gave several reasons why they could afford to run: a spouse works, they dip into savings, they are frugal or choose not to save.
On several occasions, senators have said that it is a sacrifice that they made consciously.
Wayne said he tells people he knows not to run.
“I wouldn’t recommend this job to anyone unless they are financially independent,” he said.
WHAT A SALARY INCREASE COULD – AND PROBABLY CANNOT – DO
Senator Ernie Chambers fought for reimbursement of expenses senators may receive, overcoming a veto from a governor and a battle in the Supreme Court.
Chambers, a political independent who represented his North Omaha district for 46 years, said he always tried to work for “the underdog”.
He “put lawmakers in that category.”
“The kind of people who would be truly aware of the issues affecting the vast majority of Nebraska citizens cannot afford to serve,” he said.
Vargas, also a Democrat in Omaha, argued that raising wages would diversify the legislature, allowing more working-class Nebraskas into the room. And that, in turn, could reshape the debate on issues that affect working parents, like affordable childcare.
But the researchers’ analysis of historical data suggests that raising the salaries of parliamentarians alone will not lead to an influx of working-class legislators.
“Activists and political observers should stop saying that raising legislative salaries would make the office more accessible,” wrote Nick Carnes, a Duke University political science professor and co-author Eric Hansen in a 2016 article. “…It probably wouldn’t.”
Even if the job paid more, it’s not an easy decision to put a career on hold, Squire said. And working-class people probably don’t have deep-pocketed allies to raise campaign money from.
But higher salaries would help diversify the Legislative Assembly to some degree, Squire said, perhaps bringing in people, like teachers, already attracted to public service.
According to research cited by Carnes and Hansen, higher paid politicians propose more laws, miss fewer votes, are less likely to seek outside employment, and are more likely to run for office.
“If you were on a big board that ran a company that raised or spent as much money as the state of Nebraska, you would expect a lot more compensation for that job,” Carnes said. . “You would.”
It is difficult for politicians to advocate raising their own salaries.
Danielle Jensen, spokeswoman for U.S. Representative Don Bacon, said polls showed the attempted pay rise “was a very negative issue” for Vargas.
“We didn’t focus on that and Rep. Bacon never mentioned it in our debates,” she said. “…The outside groups probably had similar polling data, though, and they used it extensively.”
She added that Bacon thinks the issue is the prerogative of Nebraskans. It is: Any increase would mean changing the state constitution, which requires a vote of the people.
The last time voters approved a raise: the 1988 primary election, and only narrowly.
State senators got a pay raise from $4,800 to $12,000.
In 2012, then governor. Dave Heineman spoke against a proposal that was voted on. Heineman told the Flatwater Free Press he thought a proposed raise to $22,500 was too much.
“If it had been a modest increase, I think there would have been more support,” he said. “But almost doubling the salary – the people of Nebraska weren’t prepared for that and didn’t vote for it. And I agree with them.
Some senators named the benefits of the current arrangement: Legislators keep a foot in the “real world,” for example, and have a spirit of public service.
The legislature is intended to be a “citizen legislature” rather than a full-time job, Heineman said. He thinks the state has been successful in attracting “high quality candidates” despite the salary.
AN ISSUE AS OLD AS THE MONICAMERAL
The tension between pay and politics is part of the unicameral origin story.
US Senator George Norris and his allies won a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 1934 to change Nebraska from a bicameral (two bodies) legislature to a unicameral (one body), nonpartisan legislature, according to a professor of retired journalism from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Charlyne Berens.
It passed, and Nebraska eventually went from 133 legislators to, initially, 43.
Norris wanted legislators to be well paid, “so that legislators could devote themselves full-time to their duties, becoming ‘legislative experts,’ and as such ‘more valuable to the state,'” wrote Berens in his book “One House.”
He wanted an annual salary of $2,400 to $51,000 in today’s dollars.
Instead, the members of the 1937 Legislative Assembly shared a grand total of $37,500.
In today’s dollars, that’s $18,000 each. That’s $6,000 more than Nebraska lawmakers will earn in 2023.
“It’s the people who have to do it; the legislature cannot do it on its own,” Berens said. “I think there was a real flaw in Norris’ thinking. And I don’t know why nobody pointed it out.
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