TOPEKA – When Tory Representative Marie Blew first won election to the House in 2016, people told her she was losing money by going to Topeka.
He was 23 at the time, and his only expenses were rent and student loan repayments. As she grew older—and she got married, with a mortgage—the financial implications of public service became apparent. Legislators earn $88 a day during the legislative session.
Blew, a Republican from Great Bend, and other millennials in the legislature backed the pay hike for lawmakers at a meeting last week of the bipartisan Future Caucus. They said better pay would attract younger, more qualified candidates.
“This is something we absolutely need to address,” Blew said. “I’m tired of talking about it.”
The proposed legislation would raise pay to $320 a day while maintaining the current level of $157 a day to cover meals, lodging and other expenses. Lawmakers also receive about $700 a month after the session ends in May. Senate Bill 10 would increase the total compensation to approximately $50,000 a year.
“If I got paid a little more, I probably would do it forever if I could,” said Congressman Rui Xu, a Westwood Democrat. “But right now, the reality is just like, I’m giving up many years of prime income to do this. And it would sadden me to have to leave, but at least it’s something I have to think about. I wish I didn’t have to make that choice. I do not want to.
Rep. Brandon Woodard, a Lenexa Democrat, said his previous employer told him he chose to put his career on hold the day he decided to run.
When trying to recruit candidates to run, they’re not willing to make the sacrifice.
“There are people, especially with the last election, who say, ‘I couldn’t justify quitting my job to do this or my wife would laugh at me,'” Woodard said.
Sen. Kristen O’Shea, a Republican from Topeka, started the discussion at a forum held at The Beacon, just west of the Statehouse. Rep. Nick Hoheisel, a Wichita Republican, teased her that she wanted to raise her own pay — and the political letters that would follow.
“I’m just saying the conversation will take place,” O’Shea said.
Hoheisel agreed. He said there are lawmakers who can’t find work outside of session because employers don’t want to hire someone for six months. Blew, who went to college to become a teacher, said she faced the same challenge.
The solution, Hoheisel said, should be bipartisan.
“It shouldn’t be a Republican and Democratic issue, and it shouldn’t be something that we use against the other side, or that the other side uses against us, in the next election,” Hoheisel said. “But we need to be forward thinking and remember that this is a tool that is going to be used to get younger, more qualified people into the legislature” – he paused for a punchline – “that I think we can all agree on that the Senate has definitely need it now.”
The Future Caucus is an extension of the DC-based Millennial Action Project, which works to engage young politicians and “create post-party political cooperation.”
Blew, Hoheisel, Woodard and Xu said they achieved more through private discussions than in public debates.
At the Statehouse, Hoheisel said, “We’re all in this protection mode, let’s call it, because we think the other party or even people in our party want to get us, eliminate us, beat us in our next election or whatever. But get in these social events where you just hang out casually, that’s where the conversation starts.
Blew said she’s learned that debating is a tool to raise money.
“When you’re in comfortable clothes and can be yourself, you have genuine conversation,” Blew said.
Woodard said her only choice, as a member of the “superminority” in the Statehouse, is to work on building relationships with people across the aisle. The only way for Democrats to pass legislation in the House is to unite the party and get at least 23 Republicans to join them.
Xu said the parallel between politics and sports presents a challenge.
“You have a team, probably rooted for that team for most of your life, your whole life, and it’s going to take you a lot to switch teams,” Xu said. “But what it does is create a system that thrives on conflict. Sport has always been a proxy for war. And that’s not politics. It shouldn’t be like that.