The Denver Post highlights an issue in an editorial today that I have long been an advocate for: Increasing the pay of state legislators. I’ll let the Post take the lead before I offer my own comments…

Since they’re supposed to be part-time, they earn $30,000 a year – below Colorado’s median income of almost $50,000. It’s time to talk about a raise, even if it’s a small one. Lawmakers won’t do it (talk about it or approve one) in an election year, but it’s a worthy debate.

Colorado legislators have received just two pay raises in 22 years. In 1984, they agreed to bump the salary to $17,500 and then in 1997 approved a hike to $30,000, which went into effect in 1999. (Raises can go into effect only after an election, so lawmakers can’t give themselves increases while still serving their terms.)

Colorado has a “citizen” legislature, but because of the salary and the accompanying long hours, the legislature draws lots of lawyers (who often make up the salary difference in the off-session), retired folks and, well, professional lawmakers. In fact, 11 of Colorado’s 65 House members list “legislator” as their occupation. Very rarely do plumbers, white-collar workers or doctors make a run because it’s extremely difficult for most people to take the first four and a half months of each year off from their jobs…

…Even before Rep. Joe Stengel shamelessly padded his paycheck by taking per diem payments for 240 days in 2005, we suspected Colorado lawmakers were overdue for a raise. His case shouldn’t cloud the debate. Some argue that raising the salary would draw a more competitive field of candidates. Depending on the salary, that may be true.

But salaries will never be raised high enough to compete with the private marketplace, so a substantial part of legislative compensation must be the satisfaction of serving the public and, hopefully, making a difference in the lives of Coloradans. However, salaries shouldn’t remain so low that they become an impediment to quality people offering to serve.

The Post is right that legislators will never try to broach a pay raise in an election year, and even if someone in a safe seat was willing to bring it up, few other legislators would vote for it. Nobody wants to show up in a piece of direct mail as “putting their own needs ahead of the needs of Colorado,” which is about what an attack ad would say against anybody who voted in favor of a raise.

The Post is also right about the fundamental reason why a pay raise is so important: To create a better pool of potential candidates. It just isn’t practical for a majority of Colorado citizens to take a $30,000 part-time job…because it isn’t part-time.

Opponents of pay raises argue that since you are only serving at the Capitol from January through May, you shouldn’t be paid a full-time salary. But those opponents probably haven’t spent much time with a good legislator; the time commitment required outside of the session is enormous, and by November most legislators are already spending at least 20 hours each week in preparation for the January session. Any legislator who isn’t doing a lot outside of the January-May session isn’t likely to get re-elected.

But let’s suppose, for argument’s sake, that being a state legislator really is a part-time job. That’s misleading in itself, because while it may be part-time when calculated over the course of an entire year, it is a full-time job (and then some) between January and May. You couldn’t possibly work a second job during the legislative session because there aren’t enough hours in the day, and you’d have a hard time convincing your boss that you would like to take five months off every year to go do your other job.

The only way you could take a job as a state legislator is if you have a reliable source of secondary income — say, from a spouse — or if you have an occupation that allows you to bascially skip five months of the year. It’s no mystery why many state legislators are retired or don’t work second jobs because of other income; those who do work outside of the session are most likely to be attorneys or small-business owners, where a nine-to-five job isn’t a vital part of your existence.

All of this is why raising the salary of a state legislator is so important. Legislators are supposed to be representatives of the people, but it’s hard to have a true representative of the people when the job is completely unreasonable for a vast majority of folks. If you have a spouse and a few kids, there’s probably no practical way that you could give up a good full-time job for a $30,000 salary and hopes of finding decent work for the other seven months of the year.

To have a government of the people and for the people, we can’t make the job off limits for most of the people. It won’t happen this year, but I hope the legislature looks at a pay raise in 2007.