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Opinion: Public service jobs deserve fair pay

Anna Williams, Karin Power and Rachel Prusak

Williams represents House District 52 – Hood River; Power represents Home District 41 – Milwaukie; and Prusak represents House District 37 – West Linn in the Oregon Legislature. All three are Democrats whose terms expire in January 2023.

At the end of this year’s legislative session, three of us jointly announced our decision not to run again. We loved serving state rerepresentatives for House Districts 37, 41 and 52. But we simply cannot afford to continue in public service while balancing second and third jobs, putting our careers on hold and taking care of our families – while providing oversight of the state government we were elected to play.

While the job of the Oregon legislature was once part-time, that is no longer the case. We meet for short and long sessions, quarterly legislative committee days, special sessions and are appointed to task forces, task forces and other committees that oversee critical work such as nuclear waste cleanup , childcare for children with disabilities, the transition to cleaning and indoor -generated energy, drinking water safety, public hospital monitoring, and health care costs.

No one should get rich as a legislator. It is a public service. But if we cannot pay a fair wage for this difficult work, we will continue to burn out excellent public servants. Over the years, the Legislative Assembly has lost many talented and intelligent legislators from both parties for these reasons. Those who stay are often retired, older, white, and more financially well-off than the average Oregonian.

Although Oregon has elected a historic number of diverse legislators over the past few years, we have not changed the underlying systems that will inevitably drive them out over the next few years. Between low legislative pay and the lack of campaign finance reform, which allows unlimited campaign contributions to raise the cost of candidacy and elevate affluent donors above ordinary Oregonians, we continue to perpetuate systems that let Blacks, Indigenous, Latinx, Women and LGBTQ Legislators Behind. With the failure of a bill that would have modestly raised wages to around $57,000, we have once again failed to achieve meaningful reform this session. These systems must change to make Oregon work for everyone.

These last two years of loss, change and uncertainty have been difficult for all families. But what keeps us awake at night is the fact that our country has the lowest labor force participation rate for women since 1991. As chairs of the early childhood committee, the care committee Oregon House Health and Social Services Committee, families working desperately to achieve a better future have been central to our work. To solve tough issues like child care, affordable housing, or access to health care, we need more legislators who understand these struggles. Electing people who have lived through these problems will help us solve them, but only if they can afford to stay in power long enough to learn how to legislate effectively. We spoke to some great community leaders about running for office, and many were interested until we discussed salary. A potential recruit asked, “How can someone who isn’t rich afford this job?”

Balancing our work, our multi-day jobs, our families and our service has become unsustainable. How much control can we have over our power if we earn a base salary of less than $33,000 a year? The most recent proposal left on the table this session would have raised lawmakers’ compensation to the same amount an average Oregonian earns. Low salaries similarly extend to other elected positions statewide.

Ultimately, many business owners, nonprofit leaders, and other potential public servants will look at these salaries and decide to stay in the private sector. We also don’t see many single parents, people with disabilities or formerly homeless as elected. To solve today’s tough problems, we must pay legislators a fair salary, so that every great candidate can afford to serve once elected. We hope that these systems will change in time to retain the excellent legislators we have, and to make these positions possible for more of you in the future.

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