Monday, November 19, 2007

Paying Oklahoma Politicians

Recently, the board that functions as the oversight authority for how Oklahoma's Senators and Representatives are compensated, made the controversial decision to provide part-time legislators with the same health benefits that full-time state employees receive. This equates to an approximate twelve thousand dollar per year raise for Oklahoma legislators.

The decision reminded me of when I was in grade school and our principal told us the story of how at the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin spoke in opposition to paying a salary to the President. Franklin stated, "
There are two passions which have a powerful influence on the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice; the love of power, and the love of money. Separately each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but when united in view of the same object, they have in many minds the most violent effects. Place before the eyes of such men a post of honour that shall be at the same time a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it." My principal felt that Franklin's point of view was correct and his story instilled in me the belief that is important for public service to be a sacrifice and not an occupation.

I believe another important principle felt by our founding fathers is that of the "citizen legislature." Instead of having a government that is run by professionally paid politicians, the government should be overseen by a group of citizens who are "sacrificing" a few years of their lives to do their duty as citizens. Once that duty is performed, those citizens will return to the populace to live under the same laws they helped to make.

There is little doubt that Oklahoma's legislators currently make enough at their jobs for their work to be considered an occupation. Oklahoma possess the third highest paid part time legislature in the nation and it appears that when cost of living is factored in, they are the highest paid part-time legislators in the nation. Oklahoma's elected officials have fantastic retirement benefits. An Oklahoma elected official who stays in some sort of state position for 25 years will likely make a higher salary in retirement than he or she made in office. And now, Oklahoma's part-time elected officials will share the same benefits plan that full-time state employees have.

There are those who will state that in order for us to attract top talent to Oklahoma's legislature, we should pay a high salary. I respond to these arguments by pointing out that although Oklahoma has had one of the highest paid legislatures for many years, the state still appears to trail other states in many of the key indicators of economic health. Conversely, a state like Texas, which pays its legislators approximately 1/7th of the salary Oklahoma pays, fares much better economically. This seems to suggest that strong economic prosperity correlates better with low legislative pay.

Others will suggest that a highly paid legislature is less susceptible to bribery. In response I simply point out Oklahoma's history of legislative corruption, including the ongoing fallout from the federal prosecution of former Senator Gene Stipe and his legislative allies. It seems to me that a significant legislative stipend only wets the appetite of Oklahoma's leaders for more money.

I believe as did Franklin that public service should be a major sacrifice for those seeking it. I am committed to supporting legislation that would bring Oklahoma closer to this goal.

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