A thankless job

Here’s an accurate but fictitious job description for a real position in state government:

WANTED:  Twenty-one people to spend sixteen to twenty hours every two years on a project likely to result in nothing being done.  Position is available for only four years and will require two meetings of two to three days each.  No salary or fringe benefits but expenses are paid. Expect no gratitude for a job well-done.  Scorn and public rebukes entirely possible for the results of your work.  Certain qualifications for employment will apply.  Apply to Governor of the State of Missouri.  If hired, you might be interrogated or rebuked by ungrateful beneficiaries of your work.

No, it’s not state executioner. It’s being a member of the Citizens Commission on the Compensation of State Elected Officials, established in law more than twenty years ago so legislators would not be accused of feathering their own nests.

There is some feeling among taxpayers that public servants who create, evaluate, and administer laws, programs, and services should do so out of the pureness of their hearts with no hope of financial gain or reward.  That might be extending things a little but probably not much

So here’s a question for those who think refusal is the only course:  How much would you want to be paid for a critically-important job that requires you to be away from home and family for four days a week for more than four months of the year, that requires broad general knowledge on hundreds of subjects of high public impact, that involves incredible pressures for action and favorable consideration from dozens of sources, that involves days that begin early and might last around the clock more times than you would like?  Furthermore, it would be a second job.  Your main job would continue.  If you were a farmer, you’d be away from home at least four days a week during planting season or farrowing season.  You wouldn’t be around your furniture store, your grocery store, your law office, your—-well, whatever is your main source of income—very much for more than four months each year.

Then, even while you are at home, your fellow townsfolk regularly call your home or stop you on the street asking pointed questions about what you’ve done or not done for them in your second job.

Or what do you think is the proper salary of the CEO of a, say, $27-billion corporation?   Or the salary of the other top officers of the corporation including the Chief Financial Officer or the corporation’s Chief Counsel?

You realize we’re talking about the legislature and the Governor and other members of the executive and judicial branches of government.  Because legislators are subject to the whims of public popularity, they long ago realized the political unattractiveness of setting their own salaries and those of other top officials.  But they retained the power to reject the recommendations of the 21 citizens because they fear the public thinks almost anything they are paid is too much.

The Citizens Commission on Compensation for State Elected Officials compared the salaries of Missouri officials with salaries and workloads of counterparts in other states. It looked at what people doing comparable work in the private sector made.  It went through numerous sheets of statistics and evaluations. It found those top public officials in Missouri are “substantially underpaid” for the responsibilities of the offices they hold and should get eight percent more. Additionally, the commission recommended 2.5% more for legislators.

These twenty-one people knew they probably wouldn’t get any thanks for their responsible efforts. They took some shots from some legislators before lawmakers voted on their recommendations. Governor Greitens, who continues to capitalize on distrust by the people of those the people elect, called their recommendations “outrageous.”

The commission, however, just did the its job.

The internet site Ballotpedia says legislative salaries range from zero in New Mexico (although those lawmakers get $163 a day in per diem) to $100,133 a year in California.  New Hampshire has the lowest legislative salaries of states that do pay salaries–$200 per two year term. Missouri legislators get almost $36,000 a year plus $112 per diem tied to the federal rate.  Sixteen states that pay salaries to their legislators pay more.  Several states pay a daily or weekly rate during sessions only.

Our governor makes about $134,000 a year which ranks 28th among all governor salaries.

The Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court makes about $180,000 for a two-year term then drops back to the $172,000 salary as a member of the court.  The CJ salary is 36th among all state chiefs, and the judge salaries ranks 38th.  The last time the Missouri legislature let pay raises go into effect was for the 2008-09 fiscal year.  Republicans controlled the legislature and the governorship then, as they do now.

The legislature rejected the work of the commission this week. It’s the right decision.  And it might not be incorrect to say it’s the wrong decision.

The public’s increasingly growing distrust of the people the public elects to most of these positions and the recent electoral climate in which “corrupt career politicians” became a rallying roar for thousands of voters made it unlikely from the beginning that the commission’s recommendations would be adopted. Added to that is the often-repeated fact that the worker bees in state government, the people who deserve something better than being dismissed with the derogatory term “bureaucrat,” are among the worst-paid state workers in the entire nation.  We don’t know if their situation was a public discussion matter in rejecting the commission’s suggestions, but surely it was privately acknowledged that accepting the proposed raises at a time when the state budget is so tight that the governor wants to lay off thousands more of those low-paid state workers would fly poorly in several different ways.

So it was the right thing to do.  Politically. And out of respect for the worker bees.

But it also was the wrong thing to do. And here’s why.

First, the citizens commission.  This group of people, citizens, did not take their responsibility lightly. Their job was to examine the issue as dispassionately as possible.  Had they been strictly motivated by today’s politics they might have recommended big pay CUTS.  But that consideration was not part of their responsibility. Their phrase “substantially underpaid for the responsibilities required” is not to be dismissed out of hand. We do not elect our lawmakers and our statewide officials to come to Jefferson City for a five-month or four-year marshmallow roast.  Their important decisions might be laudatory or highly-suspect but they are not made easily. And what they say or do on the floors of the House and Senate is only part, perhaps a small part, of their jobs.  The broad range of constituent services they are expected to perform consumes much of their time—and that part is a year-around labor.

So if you believe someone should be paid fairly for the work they do, the citizens commission was right and the lawmakers were wrong.

It could be viewed as wrong on the “you get what you pay for” scale. If you want an amusing assessment of that phrase, take a look at the Urban Dictionary website (R-rated for some language).  We heard that phrase used to justify pay increases for lawmakers in the pre-commission days.  We don’t recall hearing it used much in discussions of worker bee pay increases.  Should have been if it wasn’t. And maybe the phrase has a different meaning in an era when term limits devalue the expertise that long experience provides. But last year’s campaign raised the YGWYPF by inference if nothing else.

It could be argued, too, that they were wrong because there is no citizens commission on the salaries of state employees that would give legislators the chance to adopt recommended higher pay scales for the worker bees as well as for themselves.  Would it change anything?  In truth, probably not for those who have to face voters at home but maybe for the people who spend their lives in cubicles.

Friends, we have to have government.  And government cannot be an agency of the United Way and the people who bear the multitudinous responsibilities of being government deserve to be treated better than the hamburger flipper at the drive-through window.

The hamburger flipper, the cubicle dweller, the senator, the representative, the governor, and the judge all have responsibilities.  We wish we knew of a way to fairly measure and properly reward each one for the work they do and the responsibilities they bear.  In some ways the marketplace makes the determination.  In other ways, citizens commissions try to do the same.

A thankless job?  You bet.  Outrageously thankless.  But somebody had to do it.  And this fellow citizen, for one, appreciates their willingness to do it.

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