Low Pay and Time Away Drive Some Lawmakers to Call It Quits

Several state legislators recently resigned, saying they want to spend more time with their families -- and they seem to mean it.
by | February 2017
Former Illinois state Sen. Matt Murphy, right, talking to another legislator. Murphy recently resigned. (AP/Seth Perlman)

Sometimes, when a politician says he’s leaving office to spend more time with his family, he really means it.

Lately, lots of legislators have been saying just that. The officeholders giving up their seats aren’t just those ready to quit after a dozen terms in office, or back-benchers who never experienced a taste of real power. Quite a few of those leaving are relatively new to the job or hold leadership positions.

Matt Murphy, a deputy Republican leader in the Illinois Senate and a key ally of Gov. Bruce Rauner, stepped down in September, citing “family obligations.” He has four kids. Tom Dempsey was president pro tem of the Missouri Senate when he left in 2015, citing the pressure on family time. Charles Jeter was chairman of the GOP conference in the North Carolina House when he resigned last summer, saying that while the title he held meant a lot, “the titles of husband and father are much greater and I must devote the time to my young family while I still have that opportunity.”

In fact, Jeter was one of 18 members of the North Carolina House who opted not to run again last year, along with seven state senators. Most of them belonged to the majority Republican Party, with their ranks including committee chairs, chamber leaders and promising newcomers. “Our legislature used to be a bunch of old retired Democrats who had the time and funds to be what is essentially a full-time legislator in a part-time legislative system,” says Tim Boyum, who hosts a political TV program in Raleigh called “Capital Tonight.” “When we had the Republican wave and takeover in 2010, a lot of young or middle-aged Republican business owners were elected. After four or six years, they are now discovering it’s challenging being away from their young families and making a living all at the same time.”

A legislator earning a salary of $13,951 (the base compensation in North Carolina) must find or maintain other sources of income. That can be difficult when the nominally part-time job of legislator means near-constant demands on their attention. It’s not a surprise that many find it more lucrative to take jobs lobbying their former colleagues or accepting a permanent, full-time slot in the executive branch.

In Florida, the state House has just adopted a rule that aims to prevent legislators from quitting to take government jobs. That could have the effect of limiting legislative ranks to those wealthy enough to devote half the year to a demanding job that doesn’t pay too well, warns Oscar Braynon, the Democratic leader of the Florida Senate. If you want to prevent legislators from using their positions as stepping stones, he says, you need to pay them a full-time salary. The current amount, $29,697, doesn’t come close to that.

But in a state with some of the strictest term limits in the country, the idea of giving legislators what would amount to a promotion and a raise isn’t likely to gain much traction among the electorate.