As a former legislator, I understand and appreciate departing legislators’ complaints about pay and benefits. And, as a former legislator, I hope turnover based on complaints about legislative pay and benefits continues with every biennium.
How can these two apparently conflicting positions be held? In 1988 I was elected to the first of two terms in the Vermont House of Representatives. Thirty-eight years old and employed, with a working wife, five children, and a disabled mother-in-law to support. We purchased food at large warehouse-style stores in industrial-sized containers. If you have children, you know cereal, milk and peanut butter cost a lot and disappear quickly. One son used a large vegetable-sized bowl for his cereal with a quart of milk for breakfast.
My election was a source of pride but the family didn’t exactly expect the impact of an already constrained lifestyle becoming more challenging. Before my first term, the Legislature had written into law a future 17-week legislative session. Then they decided to stay an extra week and voted themselves $175,000 as compensation for the extra week’s pay. A small number of legislators of both parties voted against the extra pay, but lost the vote overwhelmingly. Ten legislators ultimately chose to not receive the extra pay. One of them for good measure decided not to take an expense check either (initials MK). My reason for not accepting pay or expenses was that it was, “breaking our promise with the citizens of Vermont.” The discussion with my wife over that principled stand went far beyond any legislative debate ever encountered in eight years of service. I mention this episode not to imply we were nobler, but to illustrate that other legislators have sacrificed much more in past years.
I was fortunate to have had several conversations with (now deceased) Gov. Dick Snelling in the Statehouse. He was a former house member and impressed upon me the true service ethos we accepted when we chose to run for and win a seat in the legislature. His summary was accept the temporary financial pain and after a few terms return to your occupation and the business of making a living again. Give everything you had, give the best you’ve got and then get out and let some other equally talented Vermonter have their turn. It was sage advice then and sage advice now.
I worked in human resources, and there was an axiom that after about five years in a managerial position your efforts were exhausted, your ideas finished; time to move on. After eight years in the Legislature, I could answer any question before you had completed the question. That’s a bad place to be. One cannot imagine what 30 years of Legislative service does to one’s brain, but I knew what eight years had done to mine.
So as a fellow legislator know what you experience others have experienced it too. For the benefit of the institution of a citizen legislature, please accept the temporary financial discomfort, serve your time honorably, and then go back to gainful employment as thousands of legislators past and present have done. Set a shining example for those future legislators who will be concerned with pay and benefits too.
Before my time the Legislature was occupied by many farmers who stayed in session until it was planting time and then they left. Truth be told today’s legislature is much, much more representative than those early days and in my time too. Many more women, more minorities, many with vastly better educations, etc. which is all for the good.
Do you want a 22-year-old person serving in the Legislature? Perhaps we should elect a high school graduate with four years of practical life experience driving a plow truck, landscaping, working as a customer service representative or a FedEx driver. You’ll appreciate electing young folks with a common-sense approach to problems and situations. They are just as talented and worthy of our vote as a college graduate.
Perhaps the real question to be pondered is, should a 22-year-old without an occupation be asking for a larger salary with benefits? Would small businesses or non-profits agree to a recent untested college graduate’s money and benefits demands especially given other more experienced employees? Are there too many folks serving in the Legislature looking for their first real job using their service as a springboard? Are they burnishing their resume for some other position?
In my time there were a number of legislators who claimed their occupation was “consultant.” Many pondered exactly what they consulted on given their seeming lack of obvious consultant-like talents and prior consultant jobs. Does today’s Legislature have such consultant types?
I recently noted the retirement of some legislators who served with me during my time many years ago. Sadly, there are more still serving. Be careful what you wish for. Increase the benefits and pay, and with the advantages of incumbency you might end up with a sclerotic, aged and stodgy citizen legislature in the future. Is that what Vermonters really want and need? Or would they like more turnover?