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The cost of low pay: The $12,000 salary is warping the Nebraska Legislature  

Boosting pay could diversify the Nebraska Legislature and result in state lawmakers more politically like the people they represent, say experts and studies of statehouses across the country.
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Posted at 3:23 PM, Dec 18, 2022

Third-party ads that targeted state Sen. Tony Vargas during his recent run for U.S. Congress featured incredulous voices, baffled over a seemingly selfish move: He wanted to “double his own salary” with taxpayer money.

What the ads didn’t say: Nebraska’s 49 lawmakers have been paid $12,000 a year since George H. W. Bush was first elected president, leg warmers were en vogue and Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” blasted unironically from boomboxes. If their pay had kept pace with inflation since 1988, senators today would make more than $30,000.

Low pay affects the composition of the Nebraska Legislature, lawmakers and experts say.

Nebraska lawmakers’ average age is 57. Most are retired, semi-retired or in a position to take significant time away from their primary jobs.

LOW PAY, LOTS OF WORK

Sen. Wendy DeBoer works 80 hours a week while the Nebraska Legislature is in session.

But the job doesn’t end with the session. DeBoer, an Omaha-area Democrat recently re-elected to the officially nonpartisan Legislature, estimates she spends 8-20 hours per week on legislative work when it’s not in session. Going to meetings, attending hearings and talking to constituents.

That made it tough to continue her previous work as an adjunct college professor. This fall, for the first time since she was elected, she taught at Hastings College.

The National Conference of State Legislatures counts Nebraska among 26 “hybrid” legislatures where the job equates to more than two-thirds of full-time yet pay is too low to be a person’s only income.

That means relying more on summaries written by others, DeBoer said.

“By requiring our legislators to have another job … we are necessarily giving outsize voices to lobbyists and interested stakeholders,” she said.

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Freshman Chadd Brown and Nebraska state senator Wendy DeBoer of Omaha talk before Hebrew Bible class taught by DeBoer Wednesday, Dec. 14 at Hastings College. Photo by Laura Beahm for the Flatwater Free Press

Senators are paid $1,000 monthly, and can get some expenses reimbursed.

They don’t get benefits, but can buy the state’s health insurance – plans with monthly premiums up to about three times higher than a senator’s pay before taxes.

Nebraska’s base salary is in the bottom five among similar legislatures. By comparison, Iowa’s legislators make $25,000, Missouri’s make $36,813, and Oklahoma’s $47,500.

WHO SERVES

Most Nebraskans couldn’t afford to take the job, said Peverill Squire, political science professor at the University of Missouri. Squire has researched state legislatures for decades and created the “Squire Index,” a measure of the bodies’ professionalism.

“You're asking a lot of people to run for the Legislature, put up with everything that goes along with serving in politics these days, and to have it come at – for most people, it would be a fairly significant financial cost,” he said.

At least nine Nebraska senators are retired, semi-retired or otherwise not currently working, according to their online biographies and Flatwater Free Press reporting. Eight are farmers. There are five business owners, five lawyers, five in real estate, four in banking and finance, and three nonprofit executives.

Those who juggle the Legislature and a day job often lose income.

Amanda McGill Johnson, a Democrat who represented a Lincoln area district until term-limited in 2015, found that work at a tech firm, an advertising agency and the YWCA proved incompatible.

So she took a retail job at a Target store.

“I wanted to be able to make being a state senator my top priority, and it is very difficult to find work that will work around that,” said McGill Johnson, who now serves on the Millard school board and heads Nebraska Cures and Research Nebraska.

Even those with careers that seem more workable are faced with a balancing act.

Sen. Tom Briese of Albion grows corn and soybeans near Boone. He farms full-time as soon as he leaves Lincoln. But the work overlaps when the session lasts into June.

“The perfect time to plant is when you’re in Lincoln,” said Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams, a Republican who was a full-time farmer when he joined the Legislature four years ago.

Briese, also a Republican, said a few part-time employees keep the farm running while he’s away.

Some pivot their careers entirely. Sen. Justin Wayne, an Omaha Democrat, used to practice criminal and juvenile law. But people don’t choose when they enter the justice system, so he couldn’t choose when he worked, he said. He moved to other types of law, such as personal injury, essentially “starting all over.”

Many seize whatever hours they can for their primary job. Multiple senators confirmed that legislators often do other work on the floor during the session.

Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, a Democrat, is Director of Government Affairs and External Relations for Monolith Materials, a Nebraska-based clean hydrogen and carbon black producer. She does the company’s federal and global policy work, she said.

She said she doesn’t lobby the state and abstains from related votes – like a proposal, backed by Monolith, that will allow Nebraska to seek grant money as a “hydrogen hub.”

In all, the Flatwater Free Press talked to a dozen current and former lawmakers. They gave several reasons they were able to afford to run: a spouse works, they dip into savings, are frugal, or opt not to save.

Repeatedly, senators said it’s a sacrifice they’ve made consciously.

Wayne said he tells people he knows not to run.

“I wouldn’t recommend this job for anybody unless they’re financially independent,” he said.

WHAT RAISING THE PAY COULD - AND PROBABLY COULDN’T - DO

Sen. Ernie Chambers fought for the expense reimbursement that senators can receive, overcoming a governor’s veto and a Supreme Court battle.

Chambers, a Democrat who represented his North Omaha district for 46 years, said he is always trying to work for “the downtrodden.”

He “put the legislators in that category.”

“The kind of people who would really be conversant with the issues that affect the vast majority of the citizens in Nebraska cannot afford to serve,” he said.

Vargas, also a Democrat in Omaha, argued that raising pay would diversify the Legislature, allowing more working-class Nebraskans into the room. And this, in turn, could reshape debate on issues that affect working parents, like affordable child care.

But researchers’ analysis of historical data suggests that raising legislative pay alone won’t lead to an influx of working-class lawmakers.

“Activists and political observers should stop saying that raising legislative salaries would make holding office more accessible” wrote Nick Carnes, a Duke University political science professor, and co-author Eric Hansen in a 2016 article. “...It probably wouldn’t.”

Even if the job paid more, it’s not an easy decision to temporarily pause a career, Squire said. And working class people probably don’t have deep-pocketed allies from which to raise campaign money.

But higher pay would help diversify the Legislature to some extent, Squire said, maybe bringing in people, like teachers, already drawn to public service.

Better-paid politicians propose more legislation, miss fewer votes, are less likely to pursue outside employment and more likely to run for re-election, according to research cited by Carnes and Hansen.

“If you were on a large board that ran a company that raised or spent as much money as the state of Nebraska does, you would expect a lot more compensation for that work,” Carnes said. “You just would.”

A TRICKY POLITICAL TASK

It’s difficult for politicians to advocate raising their own salaries.

Danielle Jensen, U.S. Rep. Don Bacon’s spokesperson, said polling showed that the attempted pay boost “was a very negative issue” for Vargas.

"We did not focus on this nor did Rep. Bacon ever mention it in our debates,” she said. “... Outside groups likely had similar polling data, though, and they used it extensively.”

She added that Bacon thinks the issue is Nebraskans’ prerogative. It is: Any raise would mean amending the state constitution, which requires a vote of the people.

The last time voters approved a raise: The primary election of 1988, and then only narrowly.

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State senators got a pay bump from $4,800 to $12,000.

In 2012, then-Gov. Dave Heineman came out against a proposal that made it to ballots. Heineman told the Flatwater Free Press he thought a proposed raise to $22,500 was too much.

“If it had been a modest increase, I think there would have been more support,” he said. “But to nearly double the salary – the people of Nebraska weren’t prepared for that and didn't vote for it. And I agree with them.”

Some senators named benefits of the current arrangement: Legislators keep a foot in the “real world,” for example, and have a spirit of public service.

The Legislature is intended to be a “citizen legislature” rather than a full-time job, Heineman said. He believes the state has successfully attracted “high-quality candidates” despite the salary.

AN ISSUE AS OLD AS THE UNICAMERAL

The tension between pay and politics is part of the Unicameral’s origin story.

U.S. Sen. George Norris and his allies got a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 1934 to move Nebraska from a bicameral (two-body) to a unicameral (one-body), nonpartisan Legislature, according retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism professor Charlyne Berens.

It passed, and Nebraska eventually went from having 133 lawmakers to, initially, 43.

Norris wanted lawmakers to be well-paid, “so that legislators could devote full-time to their duties, becoming ‘experts in legislation’ and, as such, ‘more valuable to the state,’” Berens wrote in her book “One House.”

He wanted an annual salary of $2,400 – $51,000 in today’s dollars.

Instead, the members of the 1937 Legislature split a grand total of $37,500.

In today’s dollars, that’s $18,000 apiece. Or $6,000 more than what Nebraska lawmakers will earn in 2023.

“It’s the people who have to do it, the Legislature can’t do it themselves,” Berens said. “I think that there was a real flaw in Norris’s thinking. And I don’t know why nobody pointed that out.”

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

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