Last night Billings City Council voted for a pay increase to go into effect in 2022. I used to think raising pay for government officials was ridiculous. But the more I’ve learned about local government and salaries this last year, the more I’ve come to realize that keeping City Council (or legislature) wages stagnant is a large part of why most of our elected leadership is retired/later in their working life. If we want “young” people to run for offices before they’re retired (or independently wealthy)—then we have to provide a way for them to financially do it.
“But this is public service! These should be volunteer positions!” I hear you. But the reality is that to do this work properly, you are working full-time (or close to it)—I’m working full-time just campaigning for the gig. Meeting leaders, attending task force meetings, reading reports, studying economics, getting down and dirty with zoning. The time for this has to come from somewhere, and for a working mom it also comes with a babysitter price tag of $12/hour.
People don’t typically go into public service to get rich. I’m not writing any of this because I’m running for City Council and have a vested interest—the pay increase won’t even go into effect for years. I’m writing this because City Council currently makes $600/month, and if I was a single mother I wouldn’t even be able to pay for childcare on that stipend, let alone a mortgage, food etc. Keeping wages so low—in city councils, legislatures—is a huge part of what keeps young, qualified people from running.
I know it seems anathema to support wage increases for officials. “What about the budget!” Yes, absolutely valid concerns—this isn’t something that should be undertaken recklessly or without foresight. But what I see now is that this belief that public service should be “all volunteer” is actually a harmful one because it means only a narrow segment of our society can fully participate. As distasteful as it might sound, raising wages is probably the single best tool we have for upending these norms and encouraging *more* diversity.
Money buys time. It buys office space and coffee and childcare. It buys the ability to turn down a shift so you can attend every council meeting. It buys the ability to drop down to part-time work. In short, it buys flexibility, and this flexibility will allow more and more people to imagine themselves stepping into these roles. Isn’t this what we want, after all? A strong, diverse body of candidates in each election?
We won’t get it just by wishing.