As Sessions Go Long, Can Average Folks Still Serve in Legislature?


Washington’s Legislature has been in session 192 days, setting a new record for days in session in a single year.

Until recently, it was rare for lawmakers’ work — scheduled to last 105 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years — to stretch from January to July. The absolute deadline for lawmakers to get out of Olympia in odd-numbered years was generally considered June 30, the last day for the governor to sign a new two-year budget into law to avoid a partial shutdown of state government.

In 2015, lawmakers crossed that threshold when a dispute over testing requirements and a smaller class-size initiative pushed them to July 10. At the time, the 176-day mega-sessionwas the longest lawmakers had spent in session during a calendar year.

This year, lawmakers have pushed their work even longer to try to resolve a debate over rural water rights, which also is holding up the passage of a $4 billion construction budget.

All of it raises the question of whether serving in the state’s Legislature is actually a part-time job anymore — and whether everyday Washingtonians can afford to serve in a citizen Legislature that pays less than the state’s average wage.

State Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn and the Senate majority floor leader, said he values having a Legislature where “everyday people can run for these offices, who come from different professional and philosophical backgrounds.”

But he said the pattern of extended special sessions — and the lack of predictability associated with that — “has made that very difficult.”

“It’s one thing to be in session for six months,” Fain said. “It’s entirely different when you’re going from day to day not knowing what tomorrow’s schedule is going to look like, and if you’re going to be home with family and work your day job, or need to be in Olympia.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the average wage in Washington state in 2016 was $55,810. A rank-and-file state lawmaker currently makes less than $47,000 per year.

Most lawmakers who aren’t top leaders or part of budget negotiations aren’t in Olympia every day during special sessions, but they still are on call to come and vote and must attend meetings periodically. They also have work that takes place between sessions, in addition to frequently having to run for re-election during the interim.

In a 2014 survey conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures, Washington lawmakers estimated on average that their elected job is equivalent to about 79 percent of a full-time position, a consultant for the organization said.

Lawmakers are in line for slight raises each of the next two years, and also can claim $120 per day in per diem payments to cover their daily expenses when the Legislature meets. Many lawmakers say they use the per diem money to help maintain a second residence in Olympia for months on end, while other lawmakers don’t claim all the per diem payments to which they’re entitled.

State Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, said it’s hard for people with demanding professional jobs to serve in the Legislature, as well as parents of young children. The three special sessions required to negotiate this year’s budget and a related overhaul of school-employee pay made it even more challenging, the father of four said.

“It is a factor in pushing people out,” said Carlyle, who continues to work as a development consultant and business strategist when he’s not in Olympia.

Carlyle said while he thinks having a part-time citizen Legislature brings “a diversity of thought” that is “incredibly important,” it might be time to revisit that conversation if lawmakers’ duties continue to increase.

Only 10 states have full-time professional legislatures where lawmakers are paid enough to make a living without outside income, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Those include several states with large populations, such as California, Illinois and New York, but also a few less populous states, such as Alaska and Hawaii. Lawmakers in those states make about $82,000 per year on average, with their duties adding up to about 84 percent of a full time job.

Fourteen states, including Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, have part-time legislatures with fewer employees and lower pay than what Washington offers. Lawmakers in those states make an average of about $18,500 per year and work a little more than half-time.

Washington falls into a middle category, along with 25 other states that have legislatures that operate somewhere between part-time and full-time. Washington lawmakers make more than the average salary lawmakers earn in those states, which NCSL pegs at roughly $41,000

Karl Kurtz, a political scientist who does consulting work for NCSL, said no system is necessarily better than another, as long as a state’s legislature has enough resources to counterbalance the power of the state’s executive branch, or governor’s office.

States without full-time legislatures have less cost associated with their government, Kurtz said, though they may also have higher turnover. That comes with a greater influx of new ideas, he said.

Then there’s what Kurtz said many citizen lawmakers describe as “the grocery store effect.”

“They say when they’re at home they run into people at the grocery store, or whatever store, and there’s this constant exposure to their constituents,” Kurtz said. “And here’s that opportunity for their constituents to talk to them in a way that is not there in Congress or the California Legislature, where they’re spending most of their time in the Capitol.”

It’s hard to say how much of an effect those casual conversations have on policy making, Kurtz said, but “it’s an important value people have.”

Still, the decision to keep Washington’s Legislature part-time certainly affects who can afford to seek legislative office, said Peverill Squire, a University of Missouri political science chair who co-wrote “State Legislatures Today: Politics Under the Domes.”

“The realities of legislative service in most states — limited pay combined with considerable time demands — skews the sorts of people who can run for the legislature,” Squire wrote in an email. “Most Washingtonians do not enjoy the financial resources or the occupational flexibility to afford legislative service even under the regular schedule.

“The problem is exacerbated by the extended sessions experienced in recent years.”

Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, said he is talking with other lawmakers and staffers about ways to avoid having sessions go too long, such as moving the state’s government shutdown deadline from July 1 to May 1 in budget-writing years. Palumbo, a first-year legislator who owns a dog kennel in his home district, said it is extremely difficult for lawmakers to have a new business or any type of second job with the current schedule.

Palumbo said he might introduce a bill to move up the fiscal deadline next year. He isn’t sure it would be a good idea to move to a full-time Legislature, though.

“I think there’s a lot of people on both sides who’d worry about the Legislature having a full year to pump out laws,” Palumbo said.

Fain, the Republican senator from Auburn, said he is also considering options like trying to start the budget-writing process sooner, maybe in autumn, instead of beginning in January. He said he worries, though, that the Legislature would then just end up taking eight months to do its work instead of six.

State Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle and a part-time nurse, said maybe the Legislature could help out by approving incentives for employers to provide flexible schedules for people serving in the Legislature or by passing a law requiring it.

“What has always been my concern is that even though it’s supposed to be a citizen legislature, that you basically get it set up so its only retirees who serve, or people who have enough money,” Cody said.

“If I had a couple of kids at home and I was worried about how I was going to pay for their college, I don’t think I would have stayed in the Legislature for 20 years,” she added.

At the same time, Cody said working as a nurse has been valuable in her role as chairwoman of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee.

“Being involved in health care regularly, I can see how our policies work or don’t work,” Cody said.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said he thinks lawmakers will have better luck getting their work done on time in future years now that they’ve dealt with a court order to fix the way the state pays for schools. The state Supreme Court’s orders in the McCleary case have been haunting lawmakers’ past three budget-writing cycles, and leaders think they’ve finally resolved those issues this year.

“People who are full time think they’ve got to do something to justify their existence — more laws, more studies, more everything. It’s a path to very big government,” Schoesler said.

“I think we have to look no further than California to know we don’t want a full-time Legislature.”