Kansas lawmakers’ pay ought to be increased, and this panel’s report is a good place to start

October 23, 2023 3:33 am

The Kansas Legislative Compensation Committee recommended pay increases for legislators. That's a good idea, writes Clay Wirestone. (Sam Bailey/Kansas Reflector)

You get what you pay for.

That’s the truism, and anyone with any experience of life agrees with it. If you buy a cheap car or computer, you can’t be surprised if either breaks down unexpectedly.

The same goes for state legislators.

In Kansas, the men and women who pass policy for our state make $23,429 a year, which puts us in the bottom third of states for legislative compensation. You can tell. Laws emerging from the Statehouse over the past year or two suggest that most lawmakers can’t tell the difference between reality and Fox News fantasyland.

Enter the Kansas Legislative Compensation Committee.

To their credit, lawmakers created the panel and gave it the unenviable task of figuring out how much they should be paid. The committee issued its report last week, and members did a commendable job. I understand that no one wants to pay legislators more, and that easy campaign ads could be concocted, but our state’s future depends on high-quality folks choosing to run. They should be paid adequately for their time and dedication.

“How do you get citizens to serve?” asked former Sen. Clark Schultz, a committee member, according to coverage from Kansas Reflector’s Rachel Mipro.

“It’s a sacrifice,” the McPherson Republican continued. “You could say we’re not going to pay anything and then you’ll get all retirees or wealthy people. We don’t want that, but we also don’t want a $100,000 salary that becomes their job.”

Here’s how Mirpo reported the recommendations.

Starting in 2025, most legislators would receive a salary of $43,000 per year, marking an approximately $21,000 increase from current compensation. This increased salary is slightly above the estimated Midwest individual yearly income of $41,000.

Leadership in the House and Senate would be set at $70,520, up from the current $36,000. In both chambers, majority and minority party leaders would make $67,940. Other higher-ranking positions, such as speaker pro tem and assistant party leaders, would have salaries of $57,190 under the proposal.

That might seem like a lot of money. Yet keeping low wages in place degrades the quality of our Legislature.

Low pay dissuades young people from entering the fray. A part-time job that takes essentially all of your time during the legislative session already causes problems enough for someone trying to hold down a 9-to-5 gig. If legislators can’t even make a reasonable sum for that time and effort, why should they run in the first place?

That might seem like a lot of money. Yet keeping low wages in place degrades the quality of our Legislature.

– Clay Wirestone

Low pay encourages midcareer and experienced legislators — those with the most knowledge about how the Statehouse runs — to leave service. They can make more and stress less as a lobbyist or working for a nonprofit.

Finally, low pay leaves those who do serve vulnerable to influence from outside interests. I don’t want to cast aspersions on any particular legislators here, but the promise of free meals and entertainment, comfortable places to stay, and well-paid employment during the rest of the year must be pretty tempting. Understand too, that there’s not necessarily anything illegal about this — everyone can follow the rules exactly and still grease palms to a fare thee well.

Back in January, a bipartisan group of young Kansas legislators sounded the alarm on this issue.

All of them agreed on the basic point: You get what you pay for. If you want good people to serve, and if you want them to continue serving, you have to pay them.

“If I was being paid a little bit more, I’d probably do this forever, if I could,” said Democratic Rep. Rui Xu of Westwood. “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. Tory Marie Blew, a Great Bend Republican, put it simply: “That’s something we definitely need to address. I’m tired of talking about it.”

Rep. Brandon Woodard, a Lenexa Democrat, shared what he had heard from others: “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.’ ”

Rep. Nick Hoheisel, a Wichita Republican, stressed the bipartisan nature of their call: “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. 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 — which I think we all can agree the Senate definitely needs right now.”

Hoheisel makes a critical point.

If this recommendation becomes law, everyone needs to take a deep breath and follow his advice to the letter. No candidate, no party, no PAC, no dark money group should see this as a fruitful opportunity to score political points.

We’ve seen the worst of the Statehouse. Let’s aim to improve the situation. Both chambers, both parties and all the people of Kansas will benefit from a better-paid, more professional Kansas Legislature.

You get what you pay for. Let’s support a professional, quality cadre of legislators.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.