Oregon lawmakers recently have not seemed especially keen on a pay hike.
In four of the last five years, a shifting group of legislators has brought forward a proposal that would make Oregon among the best-paid legislatures in the country. They have argued that current compensation is not tenable — that long hours and low base pay effectively price people out from holding the job.
Again and again, though, a proposal to tie lawmaker wages to those of an average Oregon worker has died, falling prey to competing budget priorities or heartburn about the optics of politicians in part-time jobs giving themselves a massive raise.
That isn’t stopping proponents from giving it another try this year — and they might have a lobbying blitz on their side.
A coalition of influential public employee unions and advocacy groups is preparing a campaign premised on the notion that better pay will result in a more representative Legislature.
“It is no coincidence that historically, Oregon’s legislators have been older, whiter and wealthier than the average Oregonian,” says a website for the coalition, which calls itself Opportunity to Serve Oregon. “The low legislative salary is a barrier to electing legislators who represent the diversity of our state.”
Backing the bill are major Democratic supporters Service Employees International Union Local 503 and the Oregon Nurses Association, alongside groups like the Urban League of Portland, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon and Coalitions of Communities of Color. Their voices — along with the argument that higher pay will result in a more diverse statehouse — could give lawmakers ample cover to move ahead with a raise.
Meanwhile, some of the legislators behind the proposal make an additional argument: That their pay simply doesn’t match the amount of work they do.
“I truly believe in our citizen legislature,” said state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, maybe the most persistent proselytizer for a legislative wage lift. “But we also have to acknowledge that this citizen legislature is taking on tasks that are exponentially more than many people who served decades before.”
Prozanski co-sponsored pay proposals in 2019, 2021 and 2022. He’s back again this year with a bill that could see base lawmaker pay to jump by more than 80%.
Senate Bill 786 would bring legislators’ paychecks in line with the average wage of a “covered” employee within Oregon — that is, the average wage for the more than 90% of workers whose employers pay unemployment insurance taxes.
The change, if it occurred today, would increase the base pay of most lawmakers from $35,052 a year to more than $64,000, according to the Oregon Employment Department’s most recent figures. Under the bill, the pay raise would take effect in January 2024, and be readjusted every two years.
While SB 786 doesn’t currently have a detailed fiscal analysis, a slightly different proposal last year would have cost an estimated $6.1 million in the two-year budget stretching from 2023-25, according to analysts.
Lawmakers would still receive per diem payments — currently set at $157 for each day they are in session — and monthly stipends for “expenses incurred in the performance of official duties” when they are out of session. Those payments can add tens of thousands of dollars to what legislators receive each year.
And lawmakers’ pay under the bill wouldn’t be entirely tied to the fate of the Oregon worker. Their salaries could only decrease by up to 2% of the previous year’s pay, even if average wages shrank by more. (According to the Employment Department, Oregon wages have increased steadily since at least 2008.)
The bill would make Oregon’s one of the better-paid legislatures in the country. According to a 2022 survey from the National Conference of State Legislatures, just seven legislatures in the nation earn a higher base pay than what’s proposed for Oregon. All of them have “full-time” legislatures.
Oregon lawmakers, meanwhile, come to Salem for a five-month “long” session in odd-numbered years, and a month-long “short” session in even years. The part-time nature of the gig is wrapped up in the state’s idea of a “citizen” legislature, in which lawmakers hold other professional work outside of lawmaking.
But Prozanski and his allies in the pay debate say that model has not aged well. They point out that legislative work encompasses things like constituent service and year-round committees that make the job far more demanding than many voters might think. And while pay hike proponents say they are not advocating moving to the “full-time” legislatures that exist in states like California and Michigan, they say lawmakers should not have to hold down another job just to be able to serve.
“We need to invest in a legislature that truly reflects the diverse life experience of our state so we can develop better policy,” said state Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, another sponsor of SB 786. “I recognize that I have colleagues who will supplement [their salary] by working other jobs. Every minute that they’re spending doing other jobs … is time that they’re not spending working for constituents.”
Prozanski and Pham have both been able to make the arrangement work. Prozanski is a municipal prosecutor much of the year, but contracts that work out to another person while he’s in legislative sessions. Pham has a part-time nonprofit job but is otherwise able to concentrate on legislating, she says, because of support from her partner.
While low pay is seen as an impediment to diversity, the statehouse has grown more diverse in recent years.
Still, not everyone can swing it.
Last year, three Democratic lawmakers in the House announced they would not run again specifically because of the long hours and low pay.
“Balancing our work, multiple day jobs, families and our service has become unsustainable,” then-Reps. Rachel Prusak, Karin Power and Anna Williams wrote in a joint letter announcing the decision. “How much of a check on power can we be if we earn a base salary of less than $33,000 a year? How can we adequately oversee a state budget of more than $25 billion, with dozens of different state agencies?”
Despite the insistence from many lawmakers that their pay does not match their work, a willingness to actually approve a pay hike has been hard to find.
Part of that has to do with the optics of taking a self-serving vote. When she pushed a pay-raise bill in 2019, then-state Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, suggested such a vote could easily become campaign fodder.
“It can be used in hit pieces: ‘Oh so-and-so passed all these bad bills, and then they wanted to raise their pay,’” Burdick told OPB at the time. “So people have been reluctant to move forward on this, but it really needs to be done.”
The easy politicization might be one reason why allegiances on the issue have shifted somewhat. When Burdick and Prozanski floated their idea in 2019, they had two Republican co-signers in Sens. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, and Dallas Heard, R-Myrtle Creek.
But the matter has apparently become more partisan. Last year, when Prozanski, Pham and others proposed a pay hike, Girod actively opposed the bill, though Heard remained attached. This year, SB 786 currently has no GOP co-sponsors.
What the bill does have is backing from a growing coalition touting the importance of making it easier to convince diverse candidates to run for office. A kickoff for the campaign is scheduled for March 7.
Many of the members of the Opportunity to Serve Oregon Coalition supported the bill when it was introduced last year, only to watch it languish in the Legislature’s budget committee. They will make another attempt in a year when a recession might be lying in wait, and when lawmakers and Kotek have pledged to focus state money on several key priorities, including homelessness, education, and bolstering Oregon’s semiconductor industry.
Despite that focus, Kotek — a longtime state representative — suggested Tuesday she was open to approving higher lawmaker pay if the Legislature could muster the will to get a bill giving themselves a raise to her desk.
“The pay for legislators can be a challenge, so I think it’s a good conversation to have and I will want to see the specifics of what they’re doing,” Kotek said.
But she made clear: “They would have to figure out how they could pay for it.”