Pay Iowa lawmakers more if you care at all about diversity.
Iowa lawmakers gaveled-in on Monday, after, in most instances, leaving their lives behind and moving to Des Moines for the next three months. And, thanks to a pay-scale only workable for the financially secure, they're older and whiter than the state they serve.
The state Senate boasts exactly zero racial minorities. Just five African-Americans add some variation to the wave of whiteness in the House. Minorities compose 13 percent of Iowa's population, or about 400,000 residents.
The combined average age is 55 years old, while the median age in Iowa at large is 38.
In every objective sense, the Iowa Legislature is older and whiter than the state lawmakers are elected to govern.
The hard work of lawmaking pays a relative pittance. It's a system designed to elevate the retired and well-heeled, while making holding office out of the question for anyone else.
With a base salary of $25,000, a state lawmaker can hope to bring home $42,600 after per diem, if the session runs the entire 110-day maximum. Those representing Polk County districts make $40 less per day on the daily expense front. And they're less likely to benefit from generous mileage reimbursements, too.
Regardless of where they live, the often thankless gig doesn't pay well. The combined salary and per diem amounted to just 73 percent of the state's median wage, according to fivethirtyeight.com. And the job requires the freedom to leave home for a few months every year.
It's a lifestyle that's out of reach for most. Just ask politicians on both sides of the aisle in Georgia's conservative Legislature. They're now wrapped in the politically treacherous debate about legislative pay. The argument came after several state lawmakers cited financial reasons for declining to seek re-election.
It's not about getting rich. It's about a living wage.
There's widespread distaste for "career politicians." But the disdain is a flawed oversimplification. The vast majority of elected officials care deeply about their constituents. Like with so many other professions, a few bad actors cast a wide shadow over an entire profession.
It's the relative lack of demographic diversity that should be the red flag for all but the most partisan.
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For years, political scientists have compared and contrasted the effectiveness of part-time lawmakers against those of full-time legislatures composed of well-paid professional politicians. Mind you, some of the benchmarks, such as "professionalism," are a tad squishy. Overall, however, full-time lawmakers pass more bills, spend more time with constituents and tend to be significantly more independent from caucus leadership. That is, after all, their profession.
OK. Maybe Illinois, and its decently waged Legislature, is an outlier.
But even broken Illinois touts a substantially more representative governing body. Love him or hate him, it's undeniable that former Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's rise to the presidency hinged on an ability to seek and hold office. Iowa's miserly wages would have made Obama's ascension all but impossible. Statehouses are often the congressional minor leagues for both parties.
The fact is, there's a ton of talent kicking around Iowa that, because of an economically discriminatory system, must wait decades before even mulling state office.
Until that reality changes, Iowa's Legislature will continue to over-represent a tiny sliver of the population.
Jon Alexander is editorial page editor at the Quad-City Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org