Is serving in the Oregon Legislature a rich man's game?
A PMG Special Report
This story is a joint project of newspapers within the Pamplin Media Group, which includes the Portland Tribune and more than two dozen weekly and monthly news sites and print editions throughout the state.
As the 2022 legislative session came to a close, three prominent House Democrats announced they wouldn't run for re-election.
Why? They say they can't afford to.
Within hours of it becoming clear that Senate Bill 1566 — which would have raised lawmakers' pay — wouldn't make it out of committee, Reps. Rachel Prusak of West Linn, Karin Power of Milwaukie and Anna Williams of Hood River announced they were stepping down.
All of them are women. All are of working age. All of them represent parts of Clackamas County, one of Oregon's most politically divided counties. And all are giving up committee chairmanships because the more-than-full-time positions pay less than $33,000 per year.
"Balancing our work, multiple day jobs, families and our service has become unsustainable," the trio wrote in a joint statement published in Willamette Week. "How much of a check on power can we be if we earn a base salary of less than $33,000 a year?"
Among states, Oregon sits roughly in the middle of the legislative pay scale. Some states, particularly in the South and Midwest, pay their lawmakers well under $20,000 per year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Aside from a standard reimbursement for miles driven on the job and a modest per diem — for which they must submit vouchers — New Mexico's state legislators are paid nothing for their service, a topic of much debate in Santa Fe.
Compared to its West Coast neighbors, though, Oregon's legislative salaries are paltry.
In California, state legislators make well over $100,000 per year, plus per diem. To the north, Washington has an independent salary commission that regularly approves raises for lawmakers, who now make close to $60,000 per year.
While not approaching California's rate of pay, SB 1566 would have increased the salary of lawmakers in Salem to about $58,500, building in regular raises every two years — provided Oregon's average wages continue to increase.
In a state besieged by a pandemic and inflation, the optics of giving themselves a raise proved too daunting for the 2022 Legislature.
"Any time you try to do the right thing, optics are going to be bad," state Sen. James Manning, a Eugene Democrat, told the Oregon Capital Chronicle.
Manning supported SB 1566. He argued the Legislature shouldn't let "bad optics," as he put it, keep it from passing the bill.
Oregon has long prided itself on having a "citizen Legislature." Opponents of the pay raise proposal, like state Sen. Fred Girod, a Stayton Republican, acknowledge that Oregon's legislators don't earn the equivalent of a full-time, professional salary — and that's the point, they say.
"A base legislator salary of less than $33,000 means that most people, and especially women, LGBT, and BIPOC individuals, will never be able to afford to consider serving their communities in this way. These systems served a different era of Oregonians. They do not serve us today." — Rep. Karin Power
"I don't want a full-time Legislature," Girod told the Oregon Capital Chronicle. "I just don't want to move in that direction."
The bill was discussed at the end of a whirlwind short session, days from adjourning the first Oregon legislative session in years that didn't feature a complete breakdown in cooperation between majority Democrats and minority Republicans. Given other legislative priorities, Manning's fellow Democrats let it be known they weren't willing to fight that particular battle.
While the bill picked up a Republican chief sponsor in the House — Rep. Greg Smith, whose district includes portions of Umatilla, Morrow, Gilliam, Sherman and Wasco counties — Senate Republican leadership had signaled it would oppose the legislative pay raise.
SB 1566 was left to die in committee, having never made it to the floor of either chamber for a full vote.
The speed and scope of the fallout from that decision — three committee chairs giving up their gavels — shocked many political observers.
The issue of the low pay has been a controversy for years. Many state legislators and advocates — including 24 mayors of Portland metro-area cities, two of whom are running for House seats themselves — argue an increase in pay is needed to preserve the principle of a Legislature by and for the citizens. If working-class people, parents and those without generational wealth can't afford to take months out of their lives to do the people's business in Salem, they say, then how can Oregonians expect to have a Legislature that truly represents them?
Former state Sen. Ginny Burdick of Portland and Tigard once told the Tigard Times, "Are you rich? Retired? A little crazy? Congratulations — you should run for the Legislature."
"The politics of legislator pay are difficult," acknowledged Hood River's Rep. Williams, who chairs the House Committee on Human Services. "Giving ourselves a raise is seen by many as self-serving."
While Williams said she had been leaning toward retiring, but added, "I decided I would run again if I could convince my colleagues to make legislator pay commensurate with the workload. We called colleagues in the Senate and House and asked the governor to sign it if it reached her desk. We almost got it done."
Power, who chairs the House Committee on Early Childhood, noted in a Facebook post that she essentially has three jobs, as one of her children reminded her recently. A state representative for Milwaukie and parts of Southeast Portland since 2017, Power also works as administrative director for B Local PDX, an advocacy group for socially and environmentally conscious businesses — and she's also a mom to two young kids, ages 1 and 5.
Power said she's grateful to have served in the Legislature.
"A base legislator salary of less than $33,000 means that most people, and especially women, LGBT, and BIPOC individuals, will never be able to afford to consider serving their communities in this way," Power added. "These systems served a different era of Oregonians. They do not serve us today."
Legislature for all?
Power, Prusak and Williams all indicated they wanted their retirements to send a message.
"We need to make a statement that we can't keep balancing this," Prusak told Pamplin Media Group. She chairs the House Committee on Health Care. "What should be a citizen Legislature has historically been picked from a small pool of wealthy or retired applicants, and those of us who really want to make change and actually do work, going into your fifth and sixth year, it's hard to continue to balance it."
Williams said she wanted to "start a meaningful conversation about modernizing the system."
"The Legislature is, on average, older and whiter than the state of Oregon," said Williams. "That's because you need some wealth to sustain you in this job. We don't see many single parents, people with disabilities, or formerly homeless people as elected officials. To solve today's difficult problems, we must pay legislators a fair wage, so every excellent candidate can afford to serve once elected."
Prusak, a nurse practitioner, said during legislative sessions, she would see patients Friday, Saturday and Sunday, meaning between legislative duties and nursing, she never had a day off. If SB 1566 had passed, she said, she and others in her positions could have afforded to take time off from their regular job while attending to their duties as a legislator — but that's not the case right now.
Williams, whose background is in social services and education, said Oregonians need to elect people who have lived experience with problems like paying for childcare, housing and health care and "understand those struggles," so they can bring their perspectives to solving them.
And those legislators also need, she added, to be able to "afford to stay in office long enough to learn to legislate effectively."
"I have talked to excellent community leaders about running for office, and many were interested … until we discussed salary," Williams explained.
The words of one of them stuck with her, she said: "How can anyone who isn't rich afford this job?"
Clackamas Review and Oregon City News editor Raymond Rendleman contributed to this report.
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