Why are young legislators rare at the Kansas Statehouse? Money plays a role

Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, February 2014.

? In the final hours of this year’s legislative session, House and Senate budget negotiators made a small but meaningful last-minute change by adding half a million dollars to their own legislative budget for the fiscal year that was just about to end.

That money was needed to pay the additional cost of a legislative session that dragged on for a record-tying 114 days.

And according to Tom Day, who heads the Legislature’s Administrative Services department, that half-million dollars didn’t cover the entire extra cost. His agency still had to shift about $80,000 more out of other budgets so that lawmakers themselves and other legislative staff could get paid for their work.

But this year’s extended session took a toll that went beyond money.

On the ceremonial final day known as “sine die,” Lawrence Rep. John Wilson, a Democrat, surprised his colleagues and his constituents by announcing he would call it quits and resign his seat after just two and a half terms in office.

“I think there’s a reason why there aren’t a lot of 30-something lawmakers like me,” Wilson said at the time, with his wife standing at his side on the House floor. “We’re starting our families and building our careers. And let’s be honest. How many employers are as generous as mine that allows me to work part-time for five or six months — or seven months, or whatever it’s going to be — out of every single year? There’s not many.”

A Journal-World analysis of the current Kansas Legislature bears out the fact that it is not a place for the young.

Of the 165 current members of the Kansas House and Senate, only 12 are under the age of 40. That includes Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, who turns 40 on Sept. 1.

Only 32 active legislators are under age 50, including Rep. Bill Sutton, R-Gardner, who will turn 50 Aug. 31.

At 33.8 years of age — he turns 34 in October — Wilson is currently the fourth youngest person in the Legislatre.

The median age of a Kansas legislator is 60.4 years, meaning half the members are younger than that and half are older.

The oldest person currently serving is Rep. Stephen Alford, R-Ulysses, who will turn 75 in October. When the 2017 session began, however, Alford ranked second in age behind Rep. Mike Kiegerl, R-Olathe, who resigned in February due to health reasons, just shy of his 78th birthday.

Some people have cited the low salary that Kansas pays its lawmakers to spend at least one-fourth of the year away from home.

By statute, the salary is set at $88.66 per calendar day that the Legislature is in session. That translates to just $7,979.40 for a normal 90-day session.

Kansas also gives lawmakers another $142 per day as an expense allowance for things like room and board, and it pays 54 cents per mile for travel costs.

Most lawmakers, however, say those expense allowances are quickly eaten up by actual expenses, especially for lawmakers who live too far away from Topeka to drive home every night.

At the current salary, some have argued, the only people who can afford to serve as legislators are the independently wealthy and those on retirement incomes.

“We’ve been there a long time,” said Lawrence Republican Rep. Tom Sloan who, at 71.4 years of age, ranks 14th from the top on the age list. “You look at it. By category, the largest group of legislators are retired. Then I would say the second largest group are supported by someone else. In other words you have a spouse, or a brother maintains the farm.”

A number of states only pay their legislators for days when their Legislature is in session, but Kansas has one of the lowest daily rates in the country. Among some of the higher rates, Kentucky pays $188.22 per day, and Utah pays $273 per day, according to information from the Council of State Governments.

Many more states pay lawmakers a regular annual salary, ranging from $7,200 in Texas, where the Legislature only meets in odd-numbered years for 140-day sessions, to $104,118 in California, where the Legislature meets throughout most of the year.

University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis said many states are facing the same issue with their legislatures, and it’s an issue that he said only started developing recently.

“If you look back 40-50 years, what you would see in the Kansas Legislature is maybe a slightly younger legislature,” he said. “But I think you’d see more people in their 30s and 40s. Often it was a local attorney who would take his turn at being a state legislator. Bob Dole did that, and he would be a not uncommon example. A local banker, or a lawyer or a Realtor or whatever would serve for eight years and then return home, and someone else would take his place.

“In general, law firms, banks, real estate companies, where you have some flexibility, in all honesty, they might not encourage it, but it was certainly seen as something of a civic duty, and there’s no question that in the last 30 years, that has changed,” Loomis said.

Sloan, who is serving his 12th term in the House, said he thinks the state is losing out by not making legislative service more attractive to younger adults.

“And I say that recognizing that people who are older often have more life experience that they can bring to the legislative process, maybe a broader perspective because of what they’ve done or where they’ve been, or just life in general,” he said.

“On the other hand,” he said, “when you can’t attract and keep bright young people like John (Wilson), you lose out on creativity, on newer ways of looking at issues, and just even on the energy level. So there are tradeoffs.

“But if you really want to have a Legislature that reflects the people of Kansas, I do think we need more younger people, and that may mean someone has to be financially supporting them, or legislative pay has to be financially sufficiently high that they can afford to have that as their primary occupation,” Sloan said.