Young Kansas lawmakers say pay increase is needed to remain in office, attract better candidates

By: - January 25, 2023 9:00 am
Four representatives sit at a table

From left, Rep. Brandon Woodard, Rep. Tory Marie Blew, Rep. Rui Xu and Rep. Nick Hoheisel lead a forum discussion Jan. 18, 2023, at The Beacon in Topeka. The lawmakers are leaders of the Future Caucus. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — When Rep. Tory Marie Blew first won election to the House in 2016, people told her she was losing money by going to Topeka.

She was 23 years old at the time, and her only expenses were rent and student loan repayment. As she has grown older — and married, with a mortgage — the financial implications of public service have come into focus. Lawmakers earn $88 per day during the legislative session.

Blew, a Great Bend Republican, and other millennials in the Legislature argued for increasing lawmakers’ pay during a meeting last week of the bipartisan Future Caucus. They said better pay would attract younger and more qualified candidates.

“That’s something we definitely need to address,” Blew said. “I’m tired of talking about it.”

Rep. Tory Marie Blew
Rep. Tory Marie Blew says legislative service restricts employment opportunities. She went to college to become a teacher, but who wants to hire a part-time teacher, she asked. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Proposed legislation would raise the pay to $320 per day while maintaining the current level of $157 per day to cover meals, lodging and other expenses. Lawmakers also receive about $700 per month after the session ends in May. Senate Bill 10 would increase total compensation to about $50,000 per year.

“If I was being paid a little bit more, I’d probably do this forever, if I could,” said Rep. Rui Xu, a Westwood Democrat. “But right now, the reality of it is just like, I’m giving up a lot of prime income-earning years to do this. And it would make me sad to have to leave, but that’s something I have to think about at least. I would love to not have to make that choice. I don’t want to.”

Rep. Brandon Woodard, a Lenexa Democrat, said his previous employer told him he chose to put his career on hold the day he decided to run for office.

When he tries to recruit candidates to run for office, they aren’t willing to make the sacrifice.

“I have people, especially with the most recent election, saying, ‘I couldn’t justify leaving my job to do that or my spouse would laugh at me,’ ” Woodard said.

Sen. Kristen O'Shea
Sen. Kristen O’Shea says the conversation about legislative pay is going to happen. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Sen. Kristen O’Shea, a Topeka Republican, initiated the discussion during a forum held at The Beacon, just west of the Statehouse. Rep. Nick Hoheisel, a Wichita Republican, teased her about going on the record wanting to raise her own pay — and the political mailers that would follow.

“I’m just saying the conversation is going to happen,” O’Shea said.

Hoheisel agreed. He said there are lawmakers who can’t find work outside of the session because employers don’t want to hire someone for six months. Blew, who went to college to be a teacher, said she faced the same challenge.

The solution, Hoheisel said, should be bipartisan.

“That shouldn’t be a Republican and Democrat issue, and that shouldn’t be something that we use against the other side, or the other side uses against us, in the next election,” Hoheisel said. “But we need to be forward-thinking and remember this is a tool that will be used to get younger, more qualified folks in the Legislature” — he paused for a punchline — “which I think we all can agree the Senate definitely needs right now.”

The Future Caucus is an extension of the D.C.-based Millennial Action Project, which works to engage young policymakers and “create post-partisan political cooperation.”

Rep. Nick Hoheisel and Rep. Rui Xu
Rep. Nick Hoheisel, right, says the solution to legislative pay should be bipartisan, and that raises shouldn’t be used as a political weapon. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Blew, Hoheisel, Woodard and Xu said they accomplish more through private discussions than they do in public debate.

At the Statehouse, Hoheisel said, “We’re all in this protection mode, let’s call it, because we think the other party or even the folks in our party are out to get us, pick us off, beat us in our next election or whatnot. But you get into these social events where you’re just casually hanging out, that’s where the conversation starts.”

Blew said she has learned that arguing is a tool for fundraising.

“When you’re in comfy clothes and you can be yourself, you have a genuine conversation,” Blew said.

Woodard said his only choice, as a member of the “superminority” in the Statehouse, is to work to build relationships with people across the aisle. The only way for Democrats to pass legislation in the House is to unite the party — and get at least 23 Republicans to join them.

Xu said the parallel between politics and sports presents a challenge.

“You have a team, probably rooted for that team most of your life, your entire life, and it will take a lot for you to change teams,” Xu said. “But what that does is it creates a system that thrives on conflict. Sports have always ben a proxy for war. And politics is not that. It should not be that.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.