The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

State legislators make big decisions. So why do they get tiny paychecks?

New research uncovered one surprising reason.

The Wisconsin Capitol building in Madison. (iStock)

The bright, hot lights of American politics may be focused on the 63-square-mile area known as Washington, D.C., but opportunities for both positive political change and democratic backsliding are ramping up elsewhere, in state capitals across the nation. As a recent New York Times article pointed out, state legislators in 2021 are tackling most of the most critical issues facing Americans today — from battles over critical race theory to voting rights, from abortion rights to redistricting.

Despite the important role they play in U.S. democracy, state legislators are poorly compensated for their public service. Most toil away for low wages, requiring them to seek out other sources of income as they do their work in the legislature — a requirement that takes time away from legislating. In some states, the pay scale may also dissuade people from considering a run for office.

Although legislators may privately believe their salaries should be raised, many are convinced that increasing legislative pay is akin to political suicide — constituents might expect their state tax dollars to prioritize schools, infrastructure and other urgent state-level needs. But my research findings, published in a recent article in Public Opinion Quarterly, uncovers another issue. The challenge of increasing legislative salaries may not be because citizens want to keep pay low, but rather because they dramatically overestimate how much state legislators are paid.

How I did my research

To find out what citizens know about state legislative payrolls, and whether correcting misinformation increases support for increasing legislator salaries, I conducted a survey experiment in late 2019 with a representative sample of 2,091 registered voters in four states using Qualtrics, an online survey platforms that offers inducements to participate in studies. I targeted California, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Wisconsin because these states vary in key ways beyond geography. In 2019, North Carolina and Wisconsin had Republican-controlled legislatures, while the California and New Hampshire legislatures were under Democratic control.

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These four states also have four radically different salary structures. Members of the New Hampshire Executive Council are paid $100 a year, North Carolina General Assembly members make $13,951, Wisconsin state legislators earn $50,950, and members of California’s State Assembly earn the highest state legislative salary in the country ($100,113).

I asked all participants an initial question that asked them to estimate legislative salaries in their state. I then split the participants from each state into two randomly assigned groups. The first group (the “experimental group,” in social science parlance) was presented with the actual salary for a legislator in their state and asked to type the correct answer to ensure the respondent was paying attention. The second group (the “control group”) was instead asked an unrelated question about the importance of recycling for the state’s future. Both groups were then presented with a series of questions about the state legislature, state legislators and their opinions of state legislative pay. By comparing the responses of the experimental and control groups, we can learn whether corrections — giving the respondents a better idea of actual legislator salaries — can change opinions.

People are generally clueless about legislator salaries

In 2016, North Carolina state representative Becky Carney quipped that the public “thinks we make $100,000 a year.” While Carney was correct that people dramatically overestimate legislator salaries, my survey found that the misinformation gap is even larger. In North Carolina, the average respondent in my survey estimated that General Assembly members make around $125,000. The Wisconsin average, according to survey participants, was around $110,000, while California respondents pegged legislator salaries around $165,000, and New Hampshire respondents said their state legislators earned around $81,000.

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It is difficult to overstate just how far off the mark respondents were. Only 7 percent of respondents in North Carolina, 20 percent of Californians, 15 percent of Wisconsinites, and just 1 in 4 New Hampshire respondents came within $10,000 of the true salary for their respective state legislators.

Does knowing actual salaries change how people think?

Participants presented with correct salary information were more likely to think their state legislators deserve a salary increase and less likely to believe that state legislators are “overpaid,” in comparison to survey participants who did not have their misperceptions corrected. The experimental groups in New Hampshire, North Carolina and Wisconsin were more than twice as likely than the control groups to support a salary increase and less than half as likely to believe legislators are “overpaid.” The only exception to this rule was in California, where the correction had no influence on opinions. Evidently, Californians believe a six-figure salary is plenty for their elected officials.

While sharing the actual legislator salaries was helpful in influencing opinions directly related to legislative salary, it had no effect on more generalized opinions of legislators themselves. Respondents who were provided with the salary information were no more likely to believe that legislators in their state “are honest,” “are intelligent,” “provide strong leadership” or think they are “serving in the state legislature for the right reasons.”

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What these results suggest

State legislators wield great power over the lives of Americans, yet the average American knows very little about who their legislators are, or how they are compensated. At the state level, what does this mean for those hoping to encourage different people to run for state legislative office or incentivize different actions once they are in office?

These results suggest that policymakers who seek to increase legislative resources face an information gap when it comes to educating the public about state government, but education can help bridge the gap. At the same time, education is not a cure-all; reminding citizens of the low rate of legislative compensation will not transform opinions of these key engines of democracy.

Professors: Check out TMC’s expanding list of classroom topic guides.

Christopher Cooper is Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University.