Third-party ads that targeted state Sen. Tony Vargas during his recent run for U.S. Congress featured incredulous voices, baffled over a seemingly selfish move: He wanted to “double his own salary” with taxpayer money.
What the ads didn’t say: Nebraska’s 49 lawmakers have been paid $12,000 a year since George H. W. Bush was first elected president, leg warmers were en vogue and Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” blasted unironically from boomboxes. If their pay had merely kept pace with inflation since voters approved the most recent raise in 1988, senators today would make more than $30,000.
Some state politicians – including those paid far more as a Nebraska governor or U.S. senator – have argued over the decades that the $12,000 price is right. But low pay warps the composition of the Nebraska Legislature, other lawmakers and experts say – who can and can’t serve in a body that annually decides how billions of taxpayer dollars are spent and writes laws that govern Nebraskans’ lives.
The average age is 57 in the current Nebraska Legislature, which will be in place through January 2023. Most state senators are retired, semi-retired or in a position to take significant time away from their primary jobs, according to current and former state senators and financial disclosure forms.
And about half report owning property besides their home – farmland, rental properties and second homes.
Boosting pay could diversify the Nebraska Legislature and result in state lawmakers more politically like the people they represent, say experts and studies of statehouses across the country.
But, in Nebraska, that pay raise requires a vote of the people to change the state constitution. For 34 years, it’s proved an impossible sell.
LOW PAY, LOTS OF WORK
Sen. Wendy DeBoer works 80 hours a week while the Nebraska Legislature is in session – that first three to five months or so of each year when senators write, debate and pass laws.
But the job doesn’t end when the session does. DeBoer, an Omaha-area Democrat recently re-elected to the officially nonpartisan Legislature, estimates she spends 8-20 hours per week on legislative work during the other months of the year. She goes to meetings. She attends hearings. She talks to constituents at community events.
Those duties have made it tougher to continue her previous work as an adjunct college professor, though this fall she taught, at Hastings College, for the first time since becoming a state senator.
The National Conference of State Legislatures counts Nebraska among 26 “hybrid” state legislatures where the job equates to more than two-thirds of full-time and pay usually is too low to be a person’s only income.
There are enough issues of enough sophistication, DeBoer said, that a senator can put any amount of time into the job. Less time means relying more on summaries written by others.
“By requiring our legislators to have another job … we are necessarily giving outsize voices to lobbyists and interested stakeholders,” DeBoer said.
Senators are paid $1,000 monthly, and can get some expenses reimbursed both during and after the session.
They don’t get benefits but can buy the state’s health insurance – plans with monthly premiums up to about three times higher than a senator’s pay before taxes.
Nebraska’s base salary is in the bottom five among similar legislatures. By comparison, Iowa’s legislators make $25,000, Missouri’s make $36,813, and Oklahoma’s $47,500.
There aren’t many Nebraskans in a position to afford this job, said Peverill Squire, political science professor at the University of Missouri. Squire has researched state legislatures for decades and created the “Squire Index,” a measure of the bodies’ professionalism.
“You’re asking a lot of people to run for the Legislature, put up with everything that goes along with serving in politics these days, and to have it come at – for most people, it would be a fairly significant financial cost,” he said.
When people do get elected, it means that most – unless retired or independently wealthy – are juggling responsibilities and can’t devote themselves to their elected duties full-time.
These state lawmakers are more dependent on the state’s governor, executive branch and lobbyists, “than they might be if they had more resources devoted to the legislative institution,” Squire said.
At least nine Nebraska senators are retired, semi-retired or otherwise not currently working, according to their online biographies and Flatwater Free Press reporting. Eight are farmers. There are five business owners, five lawyers, five in real estate, four in banking and finance, and three nonprofit executives.
Roughly two-dozen state senators reported having money in investments on their annual financial disclosure forms for 2021, another thing that differentiates them from many Nebraskans. A Bankrate survey earlier this year found that more than half of U.S. households don’t have enough money in savings to pay an unplanned $1,000 expense.
HOW THEY MAKE IT WORK
Those who do juggle the Legislature and a day job often lose income while discovering there aren’t enough hours in the day.
Amanda McGill Johnson, a Democrat who represented a Lincoln area district until term-limited in 2015, took a retail job at a Target store after other work – with a tech firm, an advertising agency, the YWCA – proved incompatible.
“I wanted to be able to make being a state senator my top priority, and it is very difficult to find work that will work around that,” said McGill Johnson, who now serves on the Millard school board and heads Nebraska Cures and Research Nebraska.
Even those with careers that seem more workable with the time commitment – farming and law, for example – are faced with a balancing act.
Sen. Tom Briese of Albion grows corn and soybeans near Boone. He farms full-time as soon as he leaves Lincoln while still completing other legislative work, he said. But the work overlaps in years when the session lasts into June.
“The perfect time to plant is when you’re in Lincoln (during long sessions),” said Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams, a Republican who was a full-time farmer with row crops when he joined the Legislature four years ago, but is now semi-retired with agriculture income.
Briese, also a Republican, said a few part-time employees keep the farm running while he’s away, which has been “key to making it work” for him.
Some pivot their careers entirely. When Sen. Justin Wayne, an Omaha Democrat, got to the Legislature, he practiced criminal and juvenile law. But people don’t choose when they enter the justice system, so, he couldn’t choose when he worked, he said. He moved to other types of law, such as personal injury, essentially “starting all over.”
Many put in long days, seizing whatever hours they can for their primary job. Multiple senators confirmed that legislators often do their other work while on the floor during the session.
Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, a Democrat, is Director of Government Affairs and External Relations for Monolith Materials, a Nebraska-based clean hydrogen and carbon black producer. She does the company’s federal and global policy work, she said.
Wishart said she works about 80-100 hours a week during the session, between both jobs. She wakes up at 5 a.m. to get work done before the senators meet and works more over lunch, after session adjourns, and on weekends.
She said she doesn’t lobby at the state level and abstains from related votes, like a proposal, backed by Monolith, that will allow Nebraska to seek grant money as a “hydrogen hub.”
In all, the Flatwater Free Press talked to a dozen current and former lawmakers. They gave several reasons they were able to afford to run: Often, a spouse works, they dip into savings, are frugal, or opt not to save for things like retirement or a nicer house.
Repeatedly, senators said it’s a sacrifice they’ve made consciously – but still a sacrifice. They have given up income and missed time with family, especially for those who have to drive long distances to Lincoln. Wayne said he tells people he knows not to run.
“I wouldn’t recommend this job for anybody unless they’re financially independent,” he said.
Senators named benefits of the current arrangement: Legislators keep a foot in the “real world,” for example, and have a spirit of public service. But, several also said that a pay bump is necessary.
“You could pay three times what you’re paying now and you’d still have the beneficial effect of low pay,” DeBoer said. “Which is: Folks that are doing it would have to really, really want to do it.”
WHAT RAISING THE PAY COULD – AND PROBABLY COULDN’T – DO
Sen. Ernie Chambers fought to pass into law the expense reimbursement that senators can receive now, overcoming a governor’s veto and a Supreme Court battle.
Chambers, a political independent who represented his North Omaha district for 46 years, said he is always trying to work for “the downtrodden.” In this case, he “put the legislators in that category.” (Editor’s note: This story, which previously stated that Chambers is a Democrat, has been updated to reflect he’s registered as nonpartisan.)
“The people ought to recognize that they’re cutting off their nose to spite their face when they keep the salary of legislators low,” he said in an interview. “Because the kind of people who would really be conversant with the issues that affect the vast majority of the citizens in Nebraska cannot afford to serve.”
Vargas, also a Democrat in Omaha, argued that raising pay is a step toward diversifying the Legislature, allowing more working-class Nebraskans, and working parents, into the room. And this, in turn, could reshape debate on issues that affect working parents, like affordable child care.
But researchers’ analysis of data from the late 1970s, mid 1990s and late 2000s suggests that simply raising legislative pay won’t lead to an influx of working-class lawmakers.
“Activists and political observers should stop saying that raising legislative salaries would make holding office more accessible for middle- and working-class Americans or that it would reduce class-based political inequalities,” wrote Nick Carnes, a Duke University political science professor, and co-author Eric Hansen in a 2016 article. “It probably wouldn’t.”
Even if the job paid several times what it does now, it’s not an easy decision to temporarily move out of a career, Squire said. And working class people probably don’t have a base of deep-pocketed allies from which to raise campaign money.
Carnes compared it to increasing “the prize for winning a race.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that a more diverse group of runners enters the race, but more of the kinds of people who win races – elite athletes – may join.
But higher pay would help diversify the Legislature to some extent, Squire said, maybe bringing in salaried employees, like teachers, already drawn to public service. It would allow legislators to devote more time to lawmaking, he said. And it would increase competition.
Better-paid American politicians propose more legislation, miss fewer votes, are less likely to pursue outside employment and more likely to run for re-election, according to other research cited by Carnes and Hansen. They also “favor citizen interests over business interests” and are “more in-step with their constituents ideologically,” the research found.
“If you were on a large board that ran a company that raised or spent as much money as the state of Nebraska does, you would expect a lot more compensation for that work,” Carnes said. “You just would.”
A TRICKY POLITICAL TASK
It’s difficult for politicians to advocate raising their own salaries – the optics are thorny, and it’s easy ammunition for attack ads, as Vargas knows.
U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, who voters favored for re-election over Vargas, makes $174,000 a year in his post. Danielle Jensen, Bacon’s campaign spokesperson, said polling showed that the attempted pay boost “was a very negative issue” for Vargas.
“We did not focus on this nor did Rep. Bacon ever mention it in our debates,” she said. “… Outside groups likely had similar polling data though, and they used it extensively.”
She added that Bacon thinks it’s Nebraska voters’ prerogative to decide legislator pay. It is: Any raise would mean amending the state constitution, which requires a vote of the people.
Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair, a Republican, said he voiced his opinion during a debate that “if you want a diverse group with diverse thought, I think you need to pay more.” The first attack ad used those comments against him.
He likes the “volunteer aspect” of the low pay and doesn’t want people to run for the money, he said, but he thinks they should be able to get by. Hansen’s solution? Pay Nebraska state senators minimum wage.
The last time voters approved a raise: The primary election of 1988, and then only narrowly.
State senators got a pay bump from $4,800 to $12,000. There it has stayed for 34 years, despite repeated attempts to change it.
Vargas’ 2018 resolution would have let voters decide to make senators’ pay equal to half of the state’s median income. The proposal drew Republican and Democrat cosponsors but stalled in committee.
An earlier attempt, proposed by then-Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, Republican of Omaha, made it to ballots in 2012. It would have increased pay to $22,500. Senators approved sending it to voters 31-15, and it appeared on ballots next to a proposal to extend term limits. Voters resoundingly rejected both.
“We adjust Social Security for cost of living,” said Lautenbaugh, a lawyer, during an interview. “It’s just a shame that we can’t do what makes economic sense and say the same for senator salaries, too.”
One factor in its failure, Lautenbaugh said: Then-Gov. Heineman came out against the idea.
Heineman told the Flatwater Free Press he thought $22,500 was too much.
“If it had been a modest increase, I think there would have been more support,” he said. “But to nearly double the salary – the people of Nebraska weren’t prepared for that and didn’t vote for it. And I agree with them.”
The Legislature is intended to be a “citizen legislature” rather than a full-time job, he said. He believes the state has successfully attracted “high-quality candidates” despite the salary, naming several state senators from both parties who have built impressive post-lawmaker careers.
“Nebraskans run because they want to do something good for the citizens of this state. And their motivation is public service, not necessarily the salary or a monetary gain,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, whose federal position now pays her $174,000 a year, expressed a similar sentiment as a state legislator during debate on the 2012 bill.
“All of us knew what we were doing when we ran for this office, when we filed to run,” said Fischer, who was elected to the U.S. Senate that same year.
“… We are not career politicians. We are not being paid to be here year-round, and we don’t plan to make careers out of this and stay forever. That’s a benefit that we have in Nebraska, and those are the reasons that I stand in opposition.”
At some point, salaries will have to be raised, Squire said. And there are situations – like when inflation is running high – when it’s easier for legislators to make that argument. The best people to make it, he said, are those who are being term-limited and won’t benefit from it.
“There are occasions, when you have enough politicians who are willing to take all the slings and arrows, that a case can be made,” he said.
AN ISSUE AS OLD AS THE UNICAMERAL
The tension between a desire to raise senators’ salaries to attract different candidates and a prevailing reluctance to actually do so is part of the Unicameral’s origin story.
After a decade of work, U.S. Sen. George Norris and his allies got a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 1934 to move Nebraska from a bicameral (two-body) to a unicameral (one-body), nonpartisan Legislature, according to author and retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism professor Charlyne Berens.
It passed, and Nebraska eventually went from having 133 lawmakers to, initially, 43.
Norris won the war, but lost a battle: He wanted lawmakers to be well-paid, “so that legislators could devote full-time to their duties, becoming ‘experts in legislation’ and, as such, ‘more valuable to the state,’” Berens wrote in her book “One House,” one of two books she’s written about the Unicameral.
He wanted an annual salary of $2,400 – that’s $51,000 in today’s dollars.
Instead, a committee decided that the 43 new members of the 1937 Nebraska Legislature should split a grand total of $37,500.
In today’s dollars, that’s $18,000 apiece. Or $6,000 more than what members of the Nebraska Legislature will earn in 2023.
“People want their government on the cheap, by and large, and it’s hard to get a critical mass together who will vote for an increase,” Berens said. “And it’s the people who have to do it, the Legislature can’t do it themselves. I think that there was a real flaw in Norris’s thinking. And I don’t know why nobody pointed that out.”