I’ve written before about the need to raise salaries for Colorado lawmakers, and last week we saw another example of why it needs to happen sooner rather than later. Two of Colorado’s most experienced legislators – Democratic Rep. Paul Weissmann and Republican Sen. Steve Johnson – are considering leaving their seats in order to run for county commissioner jobs that provide a much higher full-time salary.
Elected members of the state legislature receive a $32,000 per year salary, and while critics say that is more than enough money for a job that is “technically” only a full-time gig from January-May, anybody who has ever dealt with a member of the legislature knows that it is truly a year-round commitment. After the legislative session ends in mid-May, legislators spend the next several months meeting with constituents, holding town meetings, and taking part in special hearings throughout the summer. They’ll start working on their 2008 legislation in October or November, and then they have a myriad of meetings prior to the opening of the next session in January. In the meantime, anyone who isn’t retired or independently wealthy must figure out a way to earn an additional income during the rest of the year.
Term limits have forced out our most experienced legislators just as they are really starting to learn the ins and outs of government, and the low salary they are offered significantly limits the pool of potential candidates. How many people do you know who could financially afford to serve as a state legislator? I’m guessing not many, and the low salary is a big reason why Republican and Democratic operatives have so much trouble recruiting quality candidates to run every two years. There aren’t many people who are both qualified to serve and in a financial position to actually do so; it’s no coincidence that the vast majority of our elected officials are either retired, independently wealthy, or attorneys in law firms that allow them to set their own schedule.
So why does this matter? It matters because we lose good, smart, talented leaders who could really do a lot of good for our state. Senator Johnson has been a successful Republican leader in the legislature for years. As for Weissmann, he would be at the top of the list to be in the Democratic leadership in 2009 once the likes of Andrew Romanoff and Alice Madden are term-limited out.
The sad reality here is that politics will likely prevent a salary increase from happening anytime soon. If a salary increase were ever introduced in the legislature, anybody who voted for it would surely be the victim of negative ads when they ran for re-election; the public, by and large, doesn’t like to hear that their elected officials voted for pay raises for themselves. Even if they should.