Even though it’s the offseason, Kansas Rep. Rui Xu says being a legislator is a full-time job.
Over the course of a week, on top of his part-time gig as a freelance marketer, the Democrat spends 20 to 30 hours meeting with constituents in Johnson County, going to events, working on legislation or helping city council candidates run for office.
Xu isn’t paid for that work. Like every other member of the Kansas Legislature, he only draws a salary from the state during the legislative session, from about January to May. This year, his first in office, he got $19,300.
The typical Kansas legislator makes about $21,900 during session, according to a report from the legislature’s audit division. That’s less than what lawmakers make in many other states. Oklahoma and Missouri pay more than $35,000 a year, plus living expenses.
It’s not easy to convince voters that legislators need a pay raise. But some legislators and citizens argue Kansas lawmakers’ pay isn’t enough to compensate for what they do year-round, and it could impact who runs for office and what he or she does after winning a seat.
“The makeup of our legislature … does not reflect where Kansas is as a whole,” Xu said. “A House of Representatives should be fairly representative of the population.”
How the pay breaks down
Kansas bases lawmaker pay on a daily rate while the legislature is in session: $88.66 a day, plus a per-diem allowance of $149 to cover food and housing. The state report added those numbers and multiplied them by 92 days, the average length of a session since 2000.
In reality, many lawmakers make more or less than the estimated $21,900. Some lawmakers get reimbursed for mileage, some are taxed on their per diems and some pay into their pensions — which are tied to what legislators would make if they worked for the state year-round. Plus, representatives and senators who lead their party or chair committees are paid thousands of dollars extra.
All of those factors affect the baseline salary. Data from the state employee salary website shows that some representatives made less than $10,000, while some senators made more than $40,000 in fiscal year 2018.
Age, wealth gap
Some legislators and observers say low pay discourages middle- and low-income people from running for office and instead favors wealthier, older people who are retired or have jobs that allow them to take off for several months of the year.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 66% of Kansas legislators were baby boomers in 2016, compared to 29% of the state population. Only 22% of Kansas lawmakers were millennials or Gen X, even though those age groups made up 58% of the state.
In 2015, according to NCSL data, 21% of Kansas lawmakers were business owners, 11% were retired, 10% were attorneys and 7% worked in agriculture. Eighty-nine percent of lawmakers that year were white, compared to 85% of all Kansans.
At 30 years old, Xu is one of the younger lawmakers in Topeka. He and his wife are expecting their first child later this month. He’s said been planning around his extra family responsibilities, but the instability of his salary has made that harder.
“I don't want to get rich doing this, but I don't want to have to think about, what's the next couple of years going to look like?” Xu said. “I don't know what to budget for next year, I honestly don’t.”
He also doesn’t want to complain too much about a job he loves.
“There’s a lot of people out there,” he said, “who work much harder for less.”
A former Republican state representative believes voters would benefit from a wider variety of candidates to choose from.
“When you get more people, you increase the pool of ability and fresh ideas that are coming into the legislature,” said Virgil Peck, who lives in rural southeast Kansas. “I believe that some legislators would feel a greater responsibility to invest more time.”
In 2014, Peck introduced a bill to increase lawmakers’ pay by about $10,000 a year and reduce the amount that they could put into their pensions. It wasn’t met with much support from his peers.
“Almost nobody was willing to publicly take a stand and say, ‘Yep, increase my pay,’” Peck said.
The bill wasn’t popular with the public, either.
“I had people call me a liar,” Peck said, “when I told them that I only earned $15,000 a year.”
Making a difference
A raise doesn’t necessarily equate to changing the legislature’s economic diversity, according to Duke University political scientist Nicholas Carnes.
In a 2016 study, Carnes and co-author Eric Hansen looked at data about state legislator salaries and the economic class of people in those offices. They found that raising the salary of those politicians didn’t make a significant impact on middle- and lower-income people joining their ranks. Instead, it encouraged more career politicians to run and win.
The biggest obstacle to running, Carnes said, is not the eventual salary, but the cost and time required for a campaign. Wealthier people tend to seek office. Others avoid it because they don’t have the time or money, he said.
“When people run, they make huge personal sacrifices,” Carnes said. “No matter what we pay our legislators, we don't pay our candidates anything.”
To encourage more economic diversity among political candidates, Carnes suggested that organizations should conduct trainings tailored for working-class people who want to run for office.
“It’s a model that actually has a lot of potential,” he said, “and a lot of groups have used successfully.”
Ultimately, he supports raising legislators’ salaries, but for a different reason: getting paid more would encourage more dedication to the job.
“Research has generally supported the idea that if you pay a politician a higher salary, they’re more likely to behave,” he said. “They show up, they don’t miss votes, they represent their constituents’ interests.”
The national landscape
Increasing pay is a perennial proposal — and an unpopular one — in statehouses, said John Mahoney, a policy specialist at the NCSL.
“It’s always been an issue,” Mahoney said. “I don’t think it’s going to go away anytime soon.”
In 2008, then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed a bill that would have doubled the salary of the state’s lawmakers after a public outcry. Last year, New York passed the first raise for its statehouse in 20 years, also drawing criticism.
Other states determine compensation differently than Kansas, Mahoney said. Some, like Maine and Maryland, have compensation commissions that study pay on a regular basis. Others, like Alabama and South Dakota, tie legislative pay to median household income.
“It’s always around,” Mahoney said. “The question is, how do we address it in a healthy way that allows legislators and citizens to have some input?”
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the name of the Duke University political scientist. His name is Nicholas Carnes, not John.
Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for the Kansas News Service. Follow her on Twitter @NominUJ or email nomin (at) kcur (dot) org.
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