Despite the crummy salary, service in the Utah legislature has become a career.
Take a look at the figure below (click to enlarge). For each odd-numbered year (i.e. each year after an election), it shows what percentage of Utah legislators were there for the very first time. I mean “first time” literally. If they previously served in the other chamber, or if they served 20 years ago but decided to come back, they don’t count as a first-timer.
The pattern is striking. From 1897 into the 1940s or 1950s, you could expect to have at least 40% of legislators attending their first legislative session in any given year. By contrast, we’ve generally seen around 20% first-timers in the past decade.
Let’s be more precise. Between 1897 and 1937, 61% of legislators in any given session were true freshmen (on average) in each legislative session. Even if we exclude the first two decades (when everybody was new), we find a 57% freshman rate between 1917 and 1937.
Between 1981 and 2011, by contrast, only 22% of legislators were freshmen (on average) in any given session. Between 2001 and 2011, the average fell to 19%. Despite the crummy salary, service in the Utah legislature has become a career.
My first thought is that this rise in careerism seems to parallel the rise of one-party Republican electoral dominance. But that can’t be the cause, because the same pattern has occurred in many state legislatures and also in Congress. The table below shows how many freshmen there were in the U.S. House (as a percent) over various periods of time.1
If this shift toward careerism had happened only in Congress and in the California legislature, where legislators earn over $100,000 per year, then I might say that the salary and perks were leading elected officials to cling to their jobs. But this shift happened in Utah, too, where salaries stink.
So I’m at a loss. I can’t pin this shift on uncompetitive elections, and I can’t pin it on perks. I’m still puzzling over what may have caused this pronounced shift.
(Post updated: All raw numbers converted to percentages.)