Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

When George Washington became commander of the nascent American military, he was offered a salary, extravagant at the time, of $500 per month. Washington, a successful landowner, nobly declined the salary, insisting instead that he would work for expenses only. And Washington was meticulous about he record keeping, only billing the Continental Congress for the exact amounts he spent in service to his country.

As it turns out, there were a lot of expenses…

Washington billed, over the course of the roughly seven years the American revolution, just under half a million dollars. He billed the Congress for lots of mutton, as well as for beef, cabbage, beets, lobster, and veal. He also claimed the cost of refitting his “chariot,” referring to his carriage, and he billed the US for a broom, though it was quite a deal at only 6 pence. In today’s dollars, Washington billed expenses in excess of $14 million. But he won the war, so it all turned out OK.

When he was elected our nation’s first president, Washington again offered to work for expenses, but the Congress declined his magnanimous proposal and insisted instead on a salary of $25,000 per year (by the way, if presidential salaries had kept up with inflation, the current president would make over $775,000 per year, rather than the $400,000 he now gets).

I thought of old George when I was reading a Colorado Politics story this morning that reported on the expenses paid to our state legislators during 2021. It seems some of our elected officials claimed per diem monies for days that the legislature was not, in fact, in formal session. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are represented in all the various groups: those who took lots of per diem and those who took very little. And given the political climate in our nation right now, I suspect that many readers may already be ready to call for the recall, if not the imprisonment, of the aforementioned legislators. 

The per diem available to our elected folks comes in two varieties: a rate of $45 per day for those that live within 50 miles of the State Capitol, and a rate of $219 for those who live outside of the 50-mile radius. The article notes that quite a few of the members claimed per diem for days the legislature was not in session and that seems to imply some shenanigans, but that’s not the full picture.

The article does note that 2021 was a particularly strange year, with a partial session followed by a COVID break, then more session, and lots and lots of online meetings and events. We pay our members of the state House and Senate a tad over $40,000 per year. Now, for lots of folks, that isn’t too bad.  It’s about what I made as a captain during my military career. Many of the folks reading this missive might well make closer to the national average of roughly $31,000, and who therefore can’t imagine why the legislators would need per diem on top of that salary. 

But here’s the thing: folks on the Democratic and the Republican side of the aisles, in both houses, work very hard. And is it really realistic to ask a representative from, say, Delta County or from Lamar to drive home every night? Should a person serving from Durango or Fort Morgan be expected to just suck up the cost of driving to work in Denver? Knowing a few of these elected folks as I do, I can personally vouch for the hard work of, well, all of them, Dems and GOPers; and that work is not limited to only the session days. 

And as it turns out, when you rent an apartment in Denver to serve in the legislature, the landlord does not charge you only for the days the House and Senate are sitting in session. Oh, and the restaurants still charge for meals on weekends. Look, no one goes into politics to get rich. Heck, I even believe that the single worst member of the U.S. Congress, our own Lauren Boebert, likely thinks she is serving a noble goal and is not in Congress to get rich. 

So please let me offer a thought: we way underpay our elected officials, and that’s a bad thing for democracy. In politics, as in buying washing machines, one thing is true: you get what you pay for. If we were to institute a system where in we only paid our elected officials, say, a dollar a year, we might think that we are forcing money grubbers out and will then elect noble people who only want to serve. But here is the problem: we are also creating a system wherein only the rich can serve. Do you really want the legislature to be made up of only wealthy people? Would you really feel represented by such a legislature?

People complaining about what our elected officials are paid is as old as, well, Washington. But even the man who couldn’t tell a lie about chopping down a cherry tree (spoiler: didn’t happen) worked the system. We need the good people of both Denver and Delta counties to be able to serve. We want folks from Westcliffe and Campo to work with people from Cortez and Rangley. And to get people of quality we need to make sure they can afford to serve. 

While it may be great fun to complain about legislative salaries and per diems and such, it remains vital that the best and the brightest be able to afford to work on behalf of the people of Colorado. George might even agree.

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

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