MINOT, N.D. — Pay for public officials, as an issue, has always been a handy can of gasoline for a certain breed of obnoxious populist ninny to pour on the fires of public discord.
It is fashionable among the hoi polloi to dislike those in elected office (forgetting, I suppose, the identity of the idiots who elected them). The seeds of resentment toward compensation for elected officials often find fertile ground with the electorate.
That's the case with legislation currently under consideration in Bismarck, which would provide a modest daily allowance for meals payable to those lawmakers who live outside of the state capital. House Bill 1424, introduced by Rep. Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, would let lawmakers claim up to $35 per day for meals while the Legislature is in session.
This is the same amount state employees claim while traveling.
The bill's cost, per two-year budget cycle, is estimated at $424,000 or about $3,340 for each of the 127 lawmakers who would currently qualify.
Kempenich hasn't done his cause any favors by introducing this bill as a sort of rebuttal to new ethics rules which prohibit lawmakers from accepting gifts, including meals, from lobbyists. The aforementioned ninnies are seizing on this parallel because it's good politics, but as we should know by now, good politics does not always mean good policy.
Whatever the motivations for Kempenich's bill, it is good policy. Serving the state as a lawmaker is not a good way for anyone to get rich. Lawmakers make about $13,500 each in total compensation (including their pay and health benefits) during even-numbered years when there is no session in Bismarck, and about $41,500 each in odd-numbered years when there is a session.
Lawmakers outside of Bismarck also get reimbursed for mileage and, when the session is on, housing.
For the amount of work they do, the pay is a pittance.
Could you afford to take five months off from your day job every other year to serve in a session where you're expected to consider thousands of proposed bills in no more than 80 days?
Even when there is no session, lawmakers are expected to travel to Bismarck frequently to attend committee hearings. If they're doing their jobs right, they will also attend many local government meetings, not to mention events put on by nonprofits and civic groups in their districts.
They're on-call for constituents, too, which means meeting in Bismarck all week during the session and then driving back to their legislative districts (some of which are, geographically speaking, enormous) where they spend their weekends attending community forums.
I'm not trying to evoke sympathy. These people campaigned for the jobs they have. They wanted them, and they got them.
Still, their compensation should be more generous than it is.
If it's not, the only people who will serve in the Legislature will be retirees and rich people.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at email@example.com.