Low Pay In State Legislatures Means Some Can't Afford The Job State legislators in 30 states make $30,000 a year or less. New Mexico doesn't pay lawmakers at all, while those in New Hampshire make just $200 per two-year term.

Low Pay In State Legislatures Means Some Can't Afford The Job

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Many state legislatures around this country have a serious human resources problem. Salaries for being a state legislator are relatively low. And as Johnny Kauffman of member station WABE reports, not everybody can afford to do the job.

JOHNNY KAUFFMAN, BYLINE: On top of raising two kids, LaDawn Jones runs a law practice. She's busy, but loved serving in the Georgia legislature. She had to leave, though, after one term because it just didn't pay enough.

LADAWN JONES: I absolutely believe that we need to increase the wage for legislators to keep up with the times.

KAUFFMAN: Lawmakers in Georgia make $17,000 a year. It's considered a part-time job, but it took much more of her time than that. When the legislature was in session, Jones couldn't work at her law firm and had to hire extra help. That cost her.

JONES: If I really sat down and did the math, I'm certain that the amount that I paid out was equal or more than what I received.

KAUFFMAN: A few big states like Pennsylvania or California have full-time lawmakers who earn $80,000 or even $100,000 a year. But in most states, legislators are paid like it's part-time. That can keep people from getting into state politics, says Neil Malhotra of Stanford University.

NEIL MALHOTRA: There's very, very few working-class people in legislatures. And this might have something to do with why a lot of legislation does not seem very friendly towards working-class people.

KAUFFMAN: And it's not just working-class people who are left out, Malhotra says. Anyone with a regular job has a hard time taking several months a year off to work in a state capital. Mike Dudgeon just retired from the legislature because the requirements of his job at a videogame company were too great.

MIKE DUDGEON: Some people suggested that I sort of do the phone-it-in thing and just keep my seat in the legislature and just do the bare minimum, just go down and vote and kind of do that. But that's - I just can't do that. It's not my personality. I'm going to do anything, I'm going to do it well.

KAUFFMAN: Many lawmakers own businesses or they work in law, medicine or agriculture, professions where they can control their schedules. People with experience in fields like technology or finance have a harder time serving. Malhotra says when it comes to those issues, lobbyists are the only experts at the statehouse. And that gives them an edge in the legislative process.

MALHOTRA: You don't really write these bills. The lobbyists kind of write the bills for you.

KAUFFMAN: In Georgia, there's no sign lawmakers will get a raise anytime soon. David Shafer is a leader in the Georgia Senate.

DAVID SHAFER: I'm not in favor of increasing legislative pay. I don't know that anyone serves in the General Assembly because of the pay, and I don't know that we would attract a better legislator if the pay were higher.

KAUFFMAN: Georgia lawmakers are set to pass a more than $20 billion budget this year and grapple with a failing hospital system. Jones would love to be a part of those debates.

JONES: I could not dare ask my family to continue to make such a big sacrifice without that help.

KAUFFMAN: So instead of focusing on statewide issues from the capital, Jones plans to focus her political energy on her community. For NPR News, I'm Johnny Kauffman in Atlanta.


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