Should We Pay Elected Officials More?

lavarr policy insightsWho should be paid the most – a governor or a member of Congress? Who has the hardest job — a governor or member of Congress? Who has the biggest impact on citizens – a governor or member of Congress?

Certainly, salaries of elected officials aren’t terrific at any level of government. Compared to executives of large businesses, top coaches, sports stars and entertainment stars, political leaders don’t get paid much at all.

Members of Congress receive a salary of $174,000, while the average for the nation’s 50 governors is only $137,415. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is paid $109,900, only 80 percent of the national average.  He’s well in the bottom half of gubernatorial salaries. The Idaho governor earns $122,500; Montana, $111,500; Wyoming, $105,000; Nevada, $150,000.

Of course, benefits are pretty good for both Congress and governors. Governors get a nice home, vehicles, and often a living allowance. Even so, the pay isn’t great.

Herbert’s salary is a lot less than what many state-appointed officials and local government employees get. Many attorneys, department heads, physicians, coaches and technical experts in public employ make double what Herbert earns.

A recent Tribune story documented that more than 2,200 employees of Salt Lake County and its 16 cities earn more than $100,000 a year, including benefits. Thirty-two local government employees in Salt Lake County made more than $200,000 a year, topped by Salt Lake City International Airport Director Maureen Riley at $354,000. Many city managers, attorneys, fire chiefs, and police chiefs make more than $200,000. Top school administrators also earn good salaries.

Maine pays its governor only $70,000 a year. Pennsylvania pays the most, $191,000. Colorado’s governor gets only $90,000. See the entire list here.

Elected official salaries are, of course, a political lightning rod. Any politician complaining about or advocating higher salaries creates a perfect TV spot for an opponent in the next election. Voters just don’t like to pay their elected officials all that much.

State legislators, by the way, are also paid poorly, even for part-time work.

The problem with low salaries is that we may not get the best and brightest people running for political office. The power and visibility are attractive, of course, and plenty of wealthy people run for office. But there are any number of amazing, capable leaders who grew up in modest circumstances who are making much more in the private sector and could not afford to run for office. We’re not getting those folks.

Paying elected officials salaries competitive with the private sector wouldn’t even be a blip in government budgets. The concern about high salaries is all perception, not substance. We could afford to pay a lot more. I believe we’d get what we pay for.