In Texas we like to believe that our legislature is made up of citizen legislators. We believe this for several reasons. One reason is because we perceive them as working only part-time, they are constitutionally mandated to meet for 140 days every two years.
The constitutional design of the legislative branch and the political history of Texas have combined to make “the lege,” as insiders and observers call it, a peculiar institution. The Texas Constitution creates a part-time legislature that meets for a relatively brief 140 days every other year. The members, so-called citizen legislators, work within a political culture with a strong suspicion of government and a long history of accepting the involvement of wealthy business interests in politics.
Another reason is that their low salary keeps them from making a living from the state and therefore more likely to do the people’s work.
State legislators are paid meager salaries. Senators and representatives alike earn only $7,200 per year, or $14,400 for a two-year legislative period. Some may consider this salary generous, since after all legislators work only for 140 days over two years. However, this salary equals just slightly over $100 per day. Even if our legislators worked only eight hours per day, this would equal only $12.86 per hour for the people who make our state laws and conduct oversight of executive branch offices.
In addition to their annual salary all legislators and the lieutenant governor receive a per diem personal allowance of $128 for every day the legislature is in session (both regular and special sessions). This adds up to $17,920 for the regular 140-day session. Annual compensation for the year in which the legislature is in session totals $25,120 – which includes the $7,200 salary and $17,920 per diem allowance. For the biennial term, legislators earn $32,320, or a yearly average of $16,160.
While legislators do make more than the $7,200 annual salary it’s still not a lot of money. While these two reasons are why many believe in the citizen legislator myth, it is also exactly why very few citizens can actually run for and serve in the legislature in modern day Texas. The word citizen, as used in this context infers the common person. But in reality only those who are independently wealthy or whose job allows them the time off for the legislative session can afford to run for, and serve, in the legislature. While the lore of a part-time “citizen legislature” that meets every other year to blunt the effects of carpetbaggers makes a great tale, it is today little more than that.
But as the twenty-first century unfolds, the Legislature remains a curious combination of old-style politics, nineteenth century institutional design, and the realities of a state with 22 million people, many of whom live in or near some of the largest urban areas in the country.
That “curious combination” is now, quite possibly, causing more problems than it’s worth. There are several recent stories swirling around the Texas Legislature that point out structural weaknesses in how we fund it. Tales of “ghost workers”, spouses being paid with campaign funds, and legislators using campaign funds to pay off credit cards, are more the norm these days, than is the myth of the legislator coming for 140 days every two years and going back to the farm, ranch of general store. More often than not it’s the lawyer, insurance man, or consultant that can afford to be a legislator.
Although the regular session is still 140 days, there are many more special sessions these days and much more work to be done between sessions (interim). In the interim now there are many committee hearings that do the work, as set out by the leaders of both houses, that needs to be done to get ready for the next regular session. Often times these hearings are held not just in Austin, but all over the state, and over a span of many months. Again this schedule is not very conducive for a “citizen” working at a 40 hr./week or more job, 5 days a week, with a couple of weeks vacation a year.
If the best minds in Texas were to devise a government that works for the interests of the state and its people, it wouldn’t look anything like what Texas has today. It would pay judges and lawmakers a decent wage and ban or severely restrict the financial influence of wealthy individuals, lobbyists and special-interest groups.
As it has evolved, Texas government is beholden to the monied interests, and reforms come about only after scandal. It may be an overstatement to say Texas has the best government money can buy, but not much of one.
We need to pay our legislators more so they’re not beholden to “monied interests”. Hal has much more on this topic as well a link to this article from Chris Bell on the subject, With government, you get what you pay for.
I would very much like to see more varied backgrounds in state government dealing regularly with the multitude of problems we face.
However, that’s only going to happen when we start paying legislators a competitive wage and have them meet for at least six months every year.
I would also like to read fewer stories about the conflicts of interest and ethical challenges faced by lawmakers because of the obvious need most have to supplement their income.
Unless they’re retired or independently wealthy, they’re in a tough spot. There aren’t a whole lot of jobs that lend themselves to a legislator’s schedule, so those in office become prime targets for employers looking for an inside track with state government.
Or, on the flipside, employers wishing to avoid any type of controversy can view lawmakers as radioactive and not hire them. It’s a bad situation either way.
The answer is to raise the pay for legislators, change the rules to limit sources of outside income and have them meet annually.
I’m not sold on the annual session, but the rest is dead on.
A citizen legislator in the 21st century would be someone who is not beholden to monied interests, lobbyists, or their employer for them to be able to continue to support themselves and their families in order to keep serving in the legislature. (This would also not preclude the aforementioned professions, the independently wealthy, or retireees from continuing to run and serve).
No longer are our legislators beholden to the people of Texas to retain their seat in the legislature. Bringing back the citizen legislator to Texas can happen, but not without a fight. As with any major change it must come as a mandate from the people. There is a well financed system currently in place that will resist a change with all it’s might, because it will greatly hinder their current way of doing business. But that change would make the citizen legislator in Texas a reality and not the myth it is today.