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Saturday, May 15, 2021

Opinion: Part-time Public Service, Full-time Pay?

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Greg Lavelle
Greg Lavelle
Gregory Lavelle is a business executive who previously served in the Delaware State Senate and House of Representatives

Have you ever wondered how much your state representatives and senators are paid and exactly how they spend their time?

During elections, compensation almost never gets any attention as the call to “public service” and hot-button issues usually rule the debate.  It can be hard to point to a firm job description beyond dry constitutional requirements, which would likely not grab the attention of too many voters during the heat of a campaign.

A recent News Journal article examined the issue of legislative pay, work responsibilities and the apparent challenges of both. Recently elected Senator Laura Sturgeon, who it was reported earns $57,000 a year as a legislator, was quoted saying, “The pay is certainly what I would consider part-time pay.” 

For disclosure purposes, Senator Sturgeon defeated me in the 2018 election.  That said, I was struck by her comments.  We learned in the story she was retiring from her $97,000 job as a teacher in the Brandywine School District because she found that serving as a part-time legislator was too demanding.  She stated that “I thought it was going to be easier because I knew that being a legislator is considered part-time.”

 

I served for 18 years in the legislature and was one of many – the overwhelming majority – of my colleagues who never once complained about the demands of the job or the pay. In fact, probably 90% or more of members run for re-election and are well aware of the pay and time commitments.

Yes, of course, the demands of political life can be significant. When we run for office, most of us do so after serving in community capacities such as nonprofit boards or our local civic association. We understand that working with all these groups – and attending their meetings and events during evenings and weekends – is not just “a” part of the job, it is one of the most important parts of the job. Like many jobs, this work can mean we sacrifice time with family or friends or our favorite hobbies.

The fact is, most people would say the pay for the part-time role of a legislator (the Delaware Legislature is only technically in session six months a year) is pretty good.

The base pay for state legislators is $47,291.  They also receive $7,334 for “expenses” that are unaccounted for and is essentially additional compensation.  Senators and Representatives also receive stipends – additional pay for additional responsibilities – if they serve in leadership roles or serve on various committees, like the Joint Finance or Bond Bill committees.  The annual stipends can range from approximately $3,852 for committee work up to $19,893 for serving as House Speaker or Senate Pro Tempore. 

 

Approximately half the General Assembly receives some stipend, and a few serve on multiple committees and therefore get multiple stipends. My best guess would be that the average annual salary of our representatives in Dover is about $57,000. They are also eligible for a defined benefit pension plan and for healthcare coverage. Senator Sturgeon’s total pay, including her stipend of $9,626 for serving on the Joint Finance Committee, is $64,251. 

There are no legal restrictions on outside employment.  It is important that we have a range of perspectives in our state legislature and that includes people with backgrounds from both the public, private and even retired sectors. 

Professions include attorneys, educators, farmers, small business, non-profit and others. Juggling outside employment with formal and informal legislative responsibilities, not to mention family commitments, including raising children, some with disabilities, is a challenge no matter the profession.

As a representative of the people, perhaps Senator Sturgeon isn’t aware that according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average pay for all Delawareans in 2018 was $56,683. Many state employees earn far less than this working in challenging environments often with difficult service populations. Many human service contractors for state government would relish the opportunity to earn $64,251 for full or “part-time” work. 

The General Assembly’s constitutional duties run from the second Tuesday in January and end on June 30, unless there is a special session. During that six-month period, legislators meet for about 15 weeks, with a legislative week being Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.  Committees may or may not meet outside those times, and the fact that constituent and community meetings are part and parcel of the job should not be a surprise.

 

Being a state legislator is a challenging job, but that isn’t something that began in 2018.  Having been in Dover for 18 years in a variety of committee and legislative leadership roles, I was asked about my pay and was happy to disclose it.  I also thought I was fairly compensated, especially given the fact that it was a part-time job and knowing what hard-working Delawareans earn, often working in dangerous situations unlike the comfortable confines of Legislative Hall.

Legislators choose to run for office.  The pay and demands are well known, or they should be.  Retiring from a $97,000 a year job (with a pension) in favor of a $64,251 “part-time” one is a choice.   Making that choice and complaining about it while at the same time seeking employment with a Delaware university that can receive state funding, as Senator Sturgeon has done, is a choice that perhaps only a Delaware legislator can make.

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