116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa’s part-time Legislature serves our state well and discourages fame-seeking politicians. Although there is a small positive budgetary consequence of not paying legislators full-time salaries, it's truly only a drop in the bucket of the state’s annual budget. The real payoff comes through the intangible benefits of forced cooperation between legislators, an efficient process and the fact that legislators are not political celebrities.
The Iowa General Assembly, formed in 1838, was designed so that farmers could participate in state government without sacrificing valuable harvest time. The Iowa Legislature is in session from Jan. 10 to April 20. Sometimes people ask how Iowa government can do everything it needs to do working part time. To answer, simply look around and see that everything is running fine.
Iowa is one of the few states with a budget surplus, relatively low cost of living and, in my opinion during the height of the COIVD pandemic, the most convenient and free state-run testing systems in America. More work hours doesn’t necessarily mean higher quality of governance. Reflecting on my own work life, I often fall victim to Parkinson’s law which theorizes that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” It means that if I have one hour to write an article, I will write the article within the one hour. However, if given five hours I will fill that time with writing an article of the same length and of a similar quality.
Only 10 states have a full-time state legislature. Iowa legislators are paid $25,000 per year for part-time work, plus a per diem of $169 for up to 100 days. In comparison the two highest paid full-time legislatures are California at $114,877 per year and New York at $110,000 per year. Among the lowest paid are part-time lawmakers in New Hampshire, $100 per year, and South Dakota, $12,850.80 per session, plus $151 per legislative day.
At the local level, part-time service is more common, with elected officials only making a full-time salary if they are expected to devote 40 or more hours of work to their job. For example, the Cedar Rapids mayor and city manager are both full-time employees with market-rate salaries for their positions, while the Cedar Rapids City Council members work part-time and make around $18,000. Similarly, state agencies operate full-time as does the Governor’s Office, ensuring that essential operations carry on. The only true cost to having a part time legislature is that less laws are passed and there is a more narrow window to introduce and negotiate proposed legislation.
In order to make enough money to survive as a citizen legislator in Iowa, you must have an income source outside the legislature. This encourages people to participate in private industry and helps prevent political disconnect from one’s constituents. Additionally, maintaining a part-time legislature discourages fame-seeking politicians from running for office. I personally know very few people who can actively remember who their district's state senator and state representative is. Unless one has a specific problem or participates in a community group that engages with politicians, there is little exposure to one’s elected representative, which makes connecting with them relatively easy. Many state representatives even have their personal phone and email numbers listed on their campaign website and social media pages. This level of access and transparency is a function of the smaller constituencies and is also due to lack of public interest in communicating with them.
Serving in the Iowa Legislature is truly an act of public service many preform out of love for our community. With relatively low public recognition and lack of financial incentive the Iowa system of governance is designed to attract a humble public servant.
Patricia Patnode is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: email@example.com