I know, I know. This one will take a little while to explain. Maybe it’s just the contrarian in me. Then again, it is more likely the magic markers I have been sniffing.
For years, WEAC, the state teachers’ union, has tried to convince the public that the quality of their kids’ education is directly tied to the amount of money paid to their teachers. By their reasoning, if you pay the same teacher $46,000, rather than $42,000, your child will get a better education. Imagine if we paid every teacher $200,000 – Harvard would have to double in size to keep up with all the cheesehead kids!
Let’s take a step back and look at that. You go in to talk to your boss, looking for a raise. You’ve been working at the shower cap factory for four years now, and think it is time to make more than seven bucks an hour. You say the following to your boss:
“Mr. Wormser, I really haven’t been giving it my all the last couple of years. In fact, I’ve really been mailing it in, giving it a less than average effort. Given that fact, I believe that I will be a much more productive worker if you pay me nine dollars an hour. For that, I’ll crank out more shower caps – until next year, when I come in and tell you I can do even better for more money.”
Mr. Wormser would then nearly break his arm with the speed that he fills out your pink slip. (After he shows you a security video of you stuffing your pants full of shower caps and taking them home. I mean, really – are shower caps that important? Shame on you.)
As absurd as that scenario is, that is essentially what the teachers would have you believe. Rather than tell you that they are working hard and giving your kids the best education half the state budget and property taxes levied in the state can buy, they tell you that you’re not getting the whole deal, and your kids will continue to pay until you fork over the cash. At the same time, they brag about the great education Wisconsin kids are getting – just not your kid.
So what does this have to do with legislators? I certainly don\’t think our current elected officials will suddenly have a joint epiphany with a bigger paycheck. It’s all about deepening the pool of job applicants. (Come to think of it, there are probably plenty of college students that have \”joint epiphanies.\”)
There are plenty of people qualified and willing to be teachers. Teaching jobs in good school districts are difficult to find, no matter what tale of woe the teachers are weaving. Now look at the potential pool of state legislators – it can barely be considered a puddle.
Before each election cycle, legislative leaders have to tour the state and beg people to run for office. Many of the people that run are hand picked and recruited by sitting legislators to come “join the team.” Often times, it takes a significant amount of coercion. The days of citizens running for office on their own accord are almost gone. Right now state senators and representatives make about $45,000 a year. Certainly not bad money, by any stretch of the imagination. But think about this – is $45,000 a year enough to entice someone who has been successful in life away from the job that they have?
Most legislators fall into a number of categories. They are either young ex-staffers, bored retirees, farmers looking out for their interests, or lawyers looking to pad their resumes. The hours are long, the travel is frequent, and the criticism can be stinging. Running for state office is a grueling process that takes the candidate away from their job and family for months at a time. Once you gain office, you can look forward to teacher e-mails directly referencing your family, lifelong friends turning their back on you for not supporting their cause, and lonely nights traveling the district looking for backwoods school district meetings to attend.
Increasing legislator pay would provide an incentive for people in the real world to drop everything and become public servants. It would entice individuals to the Capitol who have actually made a living dealing with big budgets, customer service, and making meaningful deadlines. Similarly, there would be higher turnover, as many of these new legislators would return to the private sector more quickly, rather than making a career out of legislative service. There is nothing better than a legislator who doesn’t need the job and can vote his or her conscience.
On the flip side, I still subscribe to the idea that the state legislature shouldn’t be a “millionaires club” where nobody of modest means ever gains election. But I see elections essentially as a job interview. When I interview a candidate for a job as important as handling my tax money, I would like to see something a little more substantive than “Wendy’s salad bar security guard” on their resume. When choosing a candidate, voters should take very seriously the success that person has had in life. Unfortunately, the list of people willing to make the sacrifice to run for office is few and far between these days.
Additionally, providing more of a financial incentive for individuals to run would lead to more lively and competitive campaigns statewide. By deepening the pool of applicants, many lifelong incumbents who have become career politicians would occasionally have to beat back a primary challenger who may represent the changing demographics of a district. A stalwart Democrat who hasn’t faced a serious challenger in decades might actually get a serious and successful Republican challenger (and vice versa). Gone would be the days where 80% of Assembly seats go unchallenged, because the incentive to gain office would be substantial.
Now granted, I am not saying being a legislator is an entirely terrible job. There aren\’t any Mexican migrant workers saying \”thank God I\’m not a Wisconsin legislator.\” And a lot depends on the quality of the legislator – there are plenty of bad ones in safe districts that don\’t really do the difficult chores, but are re-elected regularly based on party affiliation. But as stated above, these lazy legislators may become targets with the right incentive.
This idea, of course would not be popular. Legislative approval is at an all time low. In fact, if it were passed into law, the Assembly speaker might have to hire Paul Barrows as a spokesman to improve the press his office was getting. But you’d get over it. After all, you steal shower caps, so who are you to judge?
Of course, there would be a cost to my proposal. If you doubled the pay of every legislator, it would cost about $5.9 million a year (I am not a legislator, nor do I ever aspire to be). That sounds like a lot, until you consider the total legislative budget is $130 million per biennium. Where would the money come from? Ask the new smart legislators – they can actually add and subtract.