Oregon legislators propose big boost in their pay – and they have community support

Groups say a living wage would take down barriers that keep people of color, low-income workers from pursuing legislative office

By: and - February 7, 2022 6:00 am

A Pride flag, Oregon flag and U.S. flag rest on a desk in the Oregon Capitol. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

SALEM – Oregon legislators would get a significant pay increase and qualify for $1,000 a month for child care under a proposal supported by minority advocates, a leading state union and a Portland business group as a way to increase diversity in the Oregon Legislature.

Under provisions of Senate Bill 1566, the base annual salary for a legislator would go from $32,839 to about $57,000. They also would still get $151 a day for expenses when the Legislature is in session and maintain access to their campaign money for other costs.

The pay increase would take effect in January 2023 and would apply to the 30 senators and 60 representatives.

The salary would be tied to Oregon’s mean wage. That was calculated by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2020 to be $56,880.

A similar proposal last year that provided for a salary about $3,000 less would have cost an estimated $4 million over 18 months, according to a legislative fiscal study.

That died in the 2021 Legislature, but the Senate Rules Committee considered the new proposal at a hearing Feb. 3.

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, a municipal prosecutor, is one of the chief sponsors. He said at the hearing that the low pay deters Oregonians from serving in the Legislature. He urged the new salary be approved.

“It will basically ensure a living wage for legislators,” Prozanski said.

He said the current pay serves to encourage only those with personal wealth or with multiple jobs to run for the legislature. Because of the high time commitment legislative positions require, the current salary also makes it financially difficult for some to stay in office once they’ve been elected, he said.

“It’s important to us moving forward so we can ensure that those who want to serve can serve,” Prozanski said.

Oregon’s Legislature has been whiter, wealthier and older than Oregon’s general population.

– Courtney Helstein of Family Forward of Oregon

The other chief sponsors are Sen. Akasha Lawrence Spence, D-Portland, Sen. Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, Rep. Zach Hudson, D-Troutdale, and Rep. Ricki Ruiz, D-Gresham. Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, the longest-serving House member, also signed on as a chief sponsor. None of the chief sponsors responded to requests for comment from the Capital Chronicle.

Rep. Khahn Pham, D-Portland, a co-sponsor, drew attention at the hearing to the potential for conflicts of interests if legislators hold second jobs. By increasing legislator pay, SB1566 would reduce the risk of legislators voting on matters that affect their personal interests, she said.

“Nobody wants legislators to be weighing in on policies that impact the very companies or interests that they’re employed in,” Pham said.

Rep. Teresa Alonso León, D-Woodburn, said the time commitment involved in legislative duties – including those outside of regular legislative sessions – makes taking a second job unfeasible for some.

“Being a legislator is not a part-time job,” Alonso León said. “I’ve yet to work a 15- to 20-hour week.”

“Many people don’t know that it’s a sacrifice financially for many of us,” she continued. “I have a mortgage and student loans.”

Several groups weighed in to urge the pay increase to allow more people to have a chance at serving as a representative or senator.

“Legislative pay functions as a historic barrier for candidates who are young, do not have access to wealth, and are members of the BIPOC community,” referring to Black, indigenous and people of color, the Urban League of Portland said in written testimony.

The statement said that while legislators might prefer to focus on their state duties all year, they have to choose “between working to maintain their livelihood or serving their fellow Oregonians.”

“This is the only path to create a truly inclusive and diverse legislature,” wrote Jenny Lee, deputy director of the Coalition of Communities of Color.

She said that “the opportunity to serve should be open to all, regardless of their wealth, financial support from family members or access to flexible sources of income.”

The child care benefit is important, she wrote.

“Child care costs are burdensome even for those making the average income,” she said. She said the proposal would allow parents to “support their families and still serve.”

Family Forward of Oregon said in written testimony that the low pay for legislators discourages those who are low income, from diverse backgrounds or are young.

“Historically, Oregon’s Legislature has been whiter, wealthier and older than Oregon’s general population,” wrote Courtney Helstein, Family Forward’s political director.

The Portland Business Alliance, which said it represents mostly small businesses in 27 counties, said a pay increase would provide a “more diverse pool of Oregon residents” to serve.

“The meager compensation of legislators has long been a barrier to more business owners, especially small business owners, choosing to run for the Legislature,” wrote Jon Isaacs, vice president of governments affairs for the alliance.

One of the state’s largest public employee unions, Service Employees International Union Local 503, said in written testimony that “the opportunity to be public servants is one that should be accessible to everyone.”
“One of the most common things we hear from our members who are interested in running for public office is that they cannot bear the financial strain of doing so,” wrote David Ramos, policy and political strategist for the union.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the average base salary for legislators in the U.S. in 2021 was $39,216.

A report by the Oregon Legislative Policy and Research Office in March 2021 found that legislators aren’t paid in New Mexico and the highest pay is in California at $114,877. In Washington, legislators are paid $56,881 a year and in Idaho they get $18,415.

This story was developed as part of the Catalyst Journalism Project at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Catalyst brings together investigative reporting and solutions journalism to spark action and response to Oregon’s most perplexing issues. To learn more visit https://catalystjournalism.uoregon.edu or follow the project on Twitter @UO_catalyst.

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Cole Sinanian

Cole Sinanian is a journalist and a student at the University of Oregon working with the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, he has written for publications like Eugene Weekly, The Oregon Daily Emerald, Ethos Magazine and others. In his free time, Cole enjoys playing music and wandering through the forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Les Zaitz
Les Zaitz

Les Zaitz is a veteran editor and investigative reporter, serving Oregon for more than 45 years. He reported for The Oregonian for 25 years and owns community newspapers and a digital news service. He is a national SPJ fellow, two-time Pulitzer finalist, including for a lengthy investigation of Mexican drug cartels in Oregon and five-time winner of Oregon’s top investigative reporting award. He has investigated corrupt state legislators, phony charities, and an international cult that moved to Oregon, and the biggest bank failure in Oregon history. He also has been active in reforming the state’s public records law and was appointed by the governor to the Oregon Public Records Advisory Council. In his spare time, he operates a ranch nestled in a national forest, feeding horses and assorted animals.