Republican Senate President Scott Sales, who believes that Montana should enact a regressive sales tax to shift more of the state’s tax burden to the poor and middle class, believes the working poor should not have access to affordable healthcare, and who argued that Republicans believe “we should live within our means,” has decided that he’ll lead the charge to increase the salaries received by Montana legislators by almost 70%.
And Montana Democrats in the Legislature should reject his proposal.
After draconian cuts implemented by the Republican Legislature led by Sales, the Senate President believes that Montanans should pay more for the experience of having people like Derek Skees, David Howard, and Theresa Manzella debate the issues of the day.
Republicans like Sales argue that their current compensation, which includes $92/day in pay, $114/day for lodging, a constituent account, and a free laptop every session just isn’t enough to adequately compensate them for the sacrifice of serving in the Legislature.
Perhaps that argument would be defensible if the Republicans who lead the Legislature would commit to Medicaid expansion, which provides healthcare to tens of thousands of Montanans while boosting our economy or if they were willing to take a serious look at ending the Martz-era tax cuts that gave hundreds of millions of dollars to a small number of wealthy Montana households, shifting the tax burden to Montanans least able to pay while social service budgets continue to feel the strain.
But they won’t. While calling for more money to line their own pockets, Montana Republicans are already gearing up to gut Medicaid expansion and would never consider restoring a more progressive tax system that would put Montana’s budget on a more stable footing.
No Democrat in the Legislature should support this proposal. Let’s let Republican legislators go back to their districts and explain, using their constituent slush funds, why they voted against community hospitals and for raises for themselves.
Now, there are some I respect who argue that increasing legislator pay will make it easier for low and middle-income Montanans to run for the citizen legislature, but the research I’ve read doesn’t support their claims. It’s just as likely that the increased pay will go to the same group of people already able to run, not open the door to a massive change in the composition of the Legislature.
If Montana is serious about increasing the economic diversity of the Legislature, real reform won’t start with pay increases, but with public financing of legislative races. In 1996, Maine passed its Clean Election Act, which let candidates receive public funds for elections simply by collecting enough signatures to demonstrate an interest in their campaigns and choosing to forgo raising large sums of money. In 2014, Maine went back to the polls to strengthen the law after the Citizens United decision undermined it.
In the 2014 book, White-Collar Government, author Nicholas Carnes praises Maine as having the most blue-collar legislature in the country, with one out of seven state representatives holding blue-collar jobs. He goes on to draw a correlation between Maine’s strong public policy geared toward working-class people and our citizen-led legislature of diverse economic backgrounds.
If our goal is truly to diversify the voices in the Montana Legislature, the fix isn’t a salary increase that will likely just increase compensation for those already able to run. A real solution would address the barriers to entry and increasingly expensive campaigns that make it difficult for challengers to run against incumbents and well-heeled opponents.
It’s hardly surprising that Scott Sales believes legislators should be paid more. It’s hard work ginning up conspiracy theories and manipulating budget estimates to justify cuts in government services. But if our priority is getting a set of voices in the Legislature who represent the lived experiences of all Montanans, let’s reduce the barriers to entry that stop public service, not further enrich those who are already entrenched in the body.