The Montana Legislature will convene in a few days to conduct the business of the citizens of Montana. Legislators have some serious work to do, little time to do it, and less time to think about how their actions will affect their employers. Here are some issues they might want to think about as they begin the session:
Remember that the power of the office you hold is vested in the office, not in the person. It is, in a sense, the sum of the individual power of each of your constituents that has been entrusted to you so that you may do work for them. It is important to remember to use that power for their benefit, not yours. If anybody’s going to get a swelled head it should be the people that you represent, not you.
There have been proposals to increase legislative salaries for legislators beginning in 2019. It should be done. If ranching is sometimes called the world’s most expensive hobby, politics surely runs a close second.
More importantly, the low legislative pay prohibits most working men and women from running for office because they can’t afford it. This means the Legislature does not truly reflect Montana as far as working people are concerned.
As a legislator you receive pay only for days that you work on official state business. In general that means the 90-day session every other year plus whatever committee work occupies you between sessions, say 12 days a year—about 114 days over the two-year period.
During the legislative session it is common to work 14-hour days. You are paid $82.64 a day. People who work hard and have to make tough decisions on behalf of their constituents deserve better pay.
Most of you will choose to be covered by the health plan the state of Montana provides to employees, a large part of which is paid for by the taxpayer. In 2015 that had a value of over $10,000 a year. Many of you have decried government-funded health insurance and want to repeal Obamacare.
Is it fair for you to enjoy the most comprehensive health insurance plan in Montana while denying basic health insurance coverage to the same people who pay for yours?
Thanks to the work of your predecessors you will be responsible for Montana’s crumbling infrastructure. That has happened because, in attempts to be “frugal,” legislators have put off spending on these projects to “save money.”
The bill is coming due. The argument goes that you have to save money to balance the budget. The reason there is less money to balance the budget is that the tax base has shrunk because of previous tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy. Cutting taxes is just another way to spend money, every year, year after year. What will you do to find ways to pay for the needed repair of highways, bridges, school buildings, etc.? Good luck.
Finally, you will be working with people whose ideologies you may despise—let alone not understand—just as they may despise yours. Despise away! But don’t despise the people who hold those ideas; they are no different than you.
Instead, invite one to dinner and don’t talk politics. Or religion, and maybe not sports if you don’t support the same teams. Ask about their families, their background, their retirement dreams. I often discovered things about people whom I disliked that completely changed my opinion of them and helped me to respect them—and their viewpoints. It also humbled me a little bit. It’s a good way to be.
I wish you health and happiness in the new year, and I thank you for your service.
Jim Elliott is a former chairman of the Montana Democratic Party and a former state senator from Trout Creek.