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Study linking legislator pay to fundraising may prompt calls for pay cuts

Local Government

By DuPage Policy Journal | Oct 20, 2016

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A newly released study that indicates higher-paid legislators spend more time fundraising than legislating prompted a conservative think-tank founder to ponder whether Illinois voters should consider reducing legislator pay.

"I wonder, given this study, if the electorate would respond to a piece of legislation that said, 'We're going to pay the legislators way, way less,'" Patrick Hughes, co-founder of the Illinois Opportunity Project and president of the Liberty Justice Center, said during a recent radio interview. "Studies show that we'll get better people, more dedicated people, not unlike Catholic schools where you get people who perform as teachers for much less money than their public school counterparts. Maybe that would be something the people would get behind."

Hughes made those comments during a recent edition of Illinois Rising, presented by the Illinois Policy Institute, in reference to a Wall Street Journal article about a study that linked high legislator salaries to more fundraising and less time spent as a legislator. The study from the National Bureau of Economic Research indicates that higher lawmaker pay doesn’t incentivize in the same way as increasing pay does in the private sector.

"You'd think the more they get paid, the better job they would do," Hughes said. "But really, it's different when you're a state legislator because when you're paid more money, you're incentivized to want to hold onto that job. The way to hold onto that job is not necessarily to do a good job; it's to make sure you have enough money in your coffers, that you're connected to the right people so you can get re-elected."

Illinois state lawmakers rank fifth in the nation in legislator pay and are the highest paid in the Midwest, according to figures released by the Illinois Policy Institute. Base pay for state legislators is almost $68,000, placing Illinois behind California, New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan. However, bonuses for leadership, health care and lifetime pension benefits raise total pay much higher than that.

The highest-paid Illinois lawmakers are House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), Senate Majority Leader John Cullerton (D-Chicago), state House Republican Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) and state Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont), all of whom receive about $95,000 a year.

Reducing that taxpayer burden is easier said than done. In January, state Rep. Dave McSweeney (R-Barrington Hills) introduced a bill to reduce elected office holder pay by 10 percent. By that time, McSweeney already had voluntarily reduced his own pay by 10 percent, cut his district office's expenses and declined to participate in the state's pension system. McSweeney also introduced House Bill 1313 that would eliminate Cost of Living Allowance increases for state legislators and force them to take furlough days.

Neither piece of legislation gained any traction during a year when the Legislature couldn't agree on a balanced budget.

Mitchell Hoffman, a professor at the Rotman School of Management and one of the two authors of the Wall Street Journal piece, said in the same Illinois Rising interview that studies done in other countries found a link between legislators' salaries and the quality of the job they do.

"These studies tend to find a positive relation between salary and different aspects of quality," Hoffman said. "For example, the number of people who run for office, the qualifications of the legislators, whether they show up for roll-call bills. We started doing similar analysis for the United States, and we actually have a working paper that deals with some of those issues. We became really interested when we came across these surveys that a couple of political scientists had done that included information about time use, and that started with their work on compensation and time use."

Hoffman said his study found that higher salaries are associated with legislators spending more time on fundraising, particularly on fundraising for themselves as opposed to for their parties.

"But higher salaries are also associated with legislators spending less time on legislative activities, which we find to include things like developing new bills, learning about existing bills, building coalitions within one's party and building coalitions across parties," Hoffman said.

However, Hoffman cautioned that his study was self-reported and is not the last word on the subject.

"It's more of a first look at what we think is a most interesting question."

Initially reported by the Sangamon Sun.

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