Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Legislative pay

This morning I felt that Tennessee Conservative Union Chairman Lloyd Dougherty said something very profound on his morning show on The Voice. Lloyd casually mentioned that perhaps we should consider a legislative pay increase because the present legislative climate is not conducive to a true part-time citizen legislature. His reasoning was that “you either have to be independently wealthy or take a vow of poverty to serve under the present system.”

I actually think Lloyd is right on about this, so I called in to second what he said and to remind everyone what we ask of our legislators. If you are elected to the
Tennessee General Assembly you must:

-Be in Nashville when the legislature convenes-if you’re a good legislator you’ll be there for every vote.

-Be present for all committee meetings and the fulfillment of any other responsibilities you may have legislatively, and be there for the introduction of any of your own bills

-Travel to and from Nashville when the legislature is in session and come home on the weekends-this is often the best chance you’ll have to meet with constituents.

-Since the legislature is in session 5-6 months out of the year (January to May or January to June) it behooves you to get an apartment (or at least a cheap motel room) in Nashville. Ladies and gentlemen, if you live in Nashville or visit there often, you know that Nashville isn’t cheap, especially having to pay Davidson County sales taxes whenever you eat out, not to mention the grocery store. Knowing how legislative bodies tend to function, there’ll be a lot of steaks, Whoppers, and Big Macs.

-Since the legislature sits nearly half the year, but does not (and should not) sit the rest of the time, we are asking someone who wants to serve our State in this way to interrupt their normal pattern of life for six months, put aside normal job and family obligations, and go up to Nashville and live there four days a week for six months while they conduct the business of the State and people of Tennessee. If a part-time citizen-legislature is what we want and desire (and it should be), then we need to make this worth doing for the average citizen. They already have enough on their plate trying to raise money to run a campaign, so why double those worries by making them wonder how they’ll feed their families while they serve?

What we have now is not a citizen-legislature. Most legislators don’t take a vow of poverty, but have the independent means to be able to interrupt their lives in this way. For many, they’ve made a career of being in politics and simply use their wealth as a means to continue their public lives. They can afford the six month interruption and the meager pay-the average citizen simply cannot.

I’m not saying that people with means shouldn’t be involved in public life-far from it. Even if there was systemic change in how we compensate our legislators, the majority would be men and women of some means, and that’s fine. That has always been the case in politics, and will continue to be the case until the Second Coming. However, having a part-time citizen-legislature means that the opportunity should be there for Joe Sixpack to be a part of the legislature, too. A modest increase in compensation can help Joe Sixpack to know that if he can raise the campaign money and get elected, he can serve with the peace of mind to know he can provide for his family.

I think it is fine for people who have wealth to spend it in the public interest-I can’t think of a better way to spend your money. People who aren’t as well-to-do-perhaps they own a small business, work in an office or a factory, or till the land-these people should also be able to serve the people of Tennessee in public life. We need to see how we can help make that possible, because I think we might be surprised at the sudden changes in affairs in our State that might occur with a few more ordinary folks in the General Assembly.


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