Do Utah Legislators work enough to justify their salary?

It’s not much of a stretch to claim that Utah Legislators earn poverty wages.

Since passage of HJR006 early in 2013, Utah Legislators will earn $16,500 per year. It can be difficult to know how many hours legislators put in to earn that money. From calculations I’ll present below, it appears that Utah legislators work just over 1,000 hours per year, producing an effective wage of $16.42/hour. At that wage, a full-time employee with two weeks vacation would earn $29,240 per year.

How much is $29,240? The Census bureau estimates that Utah’s median household income is twice as high: $57,783. For a family of four, $29,240 is only slightly above the poverty line ($23,050). It’s not much of a stretch to claim that Utah Legislators earn poverty wages.

A survey of Utah Legislators

During this year’s General Session, I had the opportunity to run a survey of Utah’s Legislators. I asked a variety of questions, some of which will be addressed in subsequent posts. I began by asking legislators to estimate how many hours they work during the General Session, in the month before the session (January), and during the rest of the year. You can read about the survey methodology, margin of error, and question wording in 2013 Legislator Survey topline report.

The median legislator reports working 62.5 hours per week during the General Session, 20 hours per week in the preceding month, and 12.5 hours per week for the rest of the year. If we assume legislators take two weeks totally away from politics, that leads to an estimate of 1,005 hours per year. (For context, consider that a full-time employee with two weeks vacation puts in 2,000 hours each year.)

When House Minority Leader David Litvack resigned from the Legislature in 2012, he cited the immense stress that his service imposed on his family life. These numbers put his comments into perspective.

What do legislators do during the General Session?

The Utah Constitution limits the Utah Legislature to a 45-day General Session held each winter.

During the General Session, the median legislator reports spending 30 hours per week either in committee meetings or in floor time, with another 9 hours spent in caucus meetings with other legislators.

This is one part of the survey that we can validate by looking at the 2013 General Session’s official legislative schedules. Looking through the House schedules, I found an average of 41 hours per week of scheduled committee, floor, and caucus meetings.1 The median legislator’s estimate of 39 hours per week on these activities slightly underestimates that 41 hour average that appears in the official schedule. Still, it is very close.

Of course, Legislators do more than sit in committee meetings and floor debates voting on bills. They also spend time drafting and negotiating the bills they plan to sponsor. Like most states, the Utah Legislature routinely passes far more bills than Congress. In a typical year, the Utah Legislature considers 700-800 bills and passes 400-500 of them. From 2007 through 2012, the average legislator sponsored 6.8 bills, with some sponsoring close to 30 bills. In my survey, the median legislator reported spending 10 hours per week (during Session) “researching and crafting legislation,” an estimate that seems plausible in light of the number of bills being written each year.

Beyond showing up to vote, legislators also have obligations to their constituents. Legislators spend time holding town hall meetings, responding to constituent emails and phone calls, and meeting with activists. The median legislator reports spending 8 hours per week (during Session) meeting with constituents and another 8 hours meeting with activists, lobbyists, and other stakeholders.

All told, the median legislator reports working 62.5 hours per week during the General Session. After seven weeks, that comes out to a total of 438 hours.

What do legislators do outside of session?

Legislative service is a year-round obligation that does not end with the annual General Session comes to a close each March. The period between sessions is known as the “interim.” Legislators have many duties during the interim: Service on task forces, attending monthly interim committee meetings, possible special sessions, and so on. Those in the Senate have the additional duty of attention confirmation sessions whenever the governor makes an appointment.

In the survey, I asked questions about how legislators spend their time during the interim. There was much greater variability here, making it difficult to pin down a pattern. The median legislator reports spending the most time (4 hours per week) during the interim interacting with constituents, either in person or by email. Legislators report spending a similar amount of time in various required meetings (such as interim committee meetings, special sessions, confirmation sessions, and so on).

Is Utah typical?

States vary widely in how many hours they expect their legislators to work and how much they pay them. In California, legislators are in session year-round and earn over $100,000 for their efforts. In Utah, the official session lasts only 45 calendar days (plus any special sessions), and legislators earn under $20,000. Recent data suggest that Utah’s legislature ranks in the bottom 5 in both salary and in session length.2

Survey details

Details about the survey’s methodology, margin of error, and question wording are in this 2013 Legislator Survey topline report.

Updated for clarity about what happens during the interim at on March 7, 2013.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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