Amidst the continuing deluge of departures from the Vermont Legislature, a handful describe a troubling pattern. Two of our youngest state senators, Corey Parent and Joshua Terenzini, are not seeking re-election. Toss in Rep. Tim Briglin, the very accomplished chair of the House Energy & Technology Committee, and it once again looks like the Statehouse is purely a country for old folks.
As Briglin told VTDigger, “You gotta have a job. And I think that, you know, for somebody in their 20s and 30s and 40s, that’s even more excruciating.”
We pay our lawmakers a pittance. That’s a powerful disincentive for anyone short of retirement age. I’ve heard this over and over again from younger lawmakers: When they enter the Legislature, the clock starts ticking. If they’re not moving up the political ladder within a few years, they start looking for the exit. And it’s all about financial stability. Many of those people, very promising public servants, eventually moved on. This year we’re losing more of them.
Briglin and Parent each have two kids. Terenzini has four. Raising kids is expensive, even if you don’t factor in building a college fund. It also helps if you’re actually around the house after work instead of living in a Montpelier rental four nights a week. The Legislature, with its long hours and minuscule pay ($743 per week in session and nothing the rest of the year) doesn’t qualify.
As the old saying goes, “You get what you pay for.” We’re barely paying at all.
The living wage is a cornerstone of the progressive agenda. Why not a living wage for our lawmakers — the people charged with managing our government and shaping policy? That’s kind of important, no?
People under 60 are badly underrepresented in Montpelier. How does that affect policymaking? It can’t help but have an impact. Isn’t it worth a bigger outlay to get a better product and substantially more diversity in the House and Senate?
Let’s talk dollars and cents. At current rates, a typical lawmaker makes about$13,500 a year. Multiply that by 180, and you get $2.43 million.
What if we paid them $30,000 a year? That’s a payroll of $5.4 million.
How about $50,000? That’s $9 million.
Seems like a lot, but is it? Compared to how much we spend on any one of our dozens of agencies, departments, and boards? And we’re talking about the people who set budgets and policy and conduct oversight of all those entities.
If we paid a living wage, we might just get a better product. We’d certainly get a more representative one. But it’s quite possible that we’d save more money than we’d spend. We’d get better-informed lawmaking on education, technology, workplace issues, child care, and more. We’d lose a bit of first-hand experience on retirement issues, but we’ve got plenty of that to spare.
Take Briglin. He took a moribund Energy & Technology Committee and made it a real force on a wide range of consequential issues — energy generation, utility regulation, telecoms, broadband. cell service, and the state’s IT systems. I’d say he’s been worth just about any salary you could pay him. Will his successor meet his high standard? Probably not. And we’ll pay a hidden price in less effective oversight and policymaking.
Parent and Terenzini, as members of the minority party, have less direct effect on policy. But they represent something you rarely see: Young professionals with kids. Even rarer, they are young Republicans. The next youngest Republican senator is, believe it or not, Russ Ingalls, who’s 57. Young Vermonters are under-represented in Montpelier; young Republicans are criminally under-represented.
I know, I know, it’ll never happen. In 2020, two extremely modest proposals were put forward to raise legislative pay. One would have given a 20% raise to committee chairs and House and Senate leadership. The other would have provided a weekly stipend for the off-session months when lawmakers still have plenty of work to do. That bill would have raised lawmakers’ total pay by about $5,000.
And both bills were dead on arrival.
So yeah, my vision will never happen. It’d take more courage than our lawmakers can usually muster to give themselves a transformational pay hike.
The sponsor of the off-session stipend bill was Rep. Lucy Rogers, then 24 years old, incredibly smart and capable. How long will she stick around? Why do we have to risk losing her and her fellows because we can’t face the notion of paying our lawmakers a fraction of what they’re worth?
So hooray, we’re sticking with tradition. We’re forcing our lawmakers to make huge sacrifices for public service. That’s all right to a point, but we take it far beyond.
Frankly, it’s ridiculous. But this being Vermont, it’s not going to change. And people like Parent and Briglin are going to keep on leaving because they’ve got to support their families.