Given the stressors of the current political climate, you would have to be very committed to public service to decide to serve. There are more responsibilities serving in local and state offices and there are also more calls for transparency and accountability.
While the local level has its own set of challenges (conflicts of interest, in-fighting, personality conflicts, and more), serving as a lawmaker is a beast of its own.
According to a new study by Cora Smith, a University of Vermont student and legislative intern, serving in our legislature poses even more challenges, especially for certain demographics of individuals willing to serve.
“Redefining the Citizen Legislature” offers an analysis of survey results gathered in recent years.
The Center for Research on Vermont at UVM introduced the report thusly: “Does the increasingly difficult job of a legislator in Vermont make it difficult to recruit people to run for office? And how do those challenges affect the diversity and lived experiences of candidates? A report from the UVM legislative intern program includes interviews with legislators and others to understand the barriers to entering the Legislature.”
According to Smith’s report, Vermont’s legislature — its structure and pay — make legislative service out of reach for many Vermonters. Smith used articles, personal interviews and a survey to gather experiences of Vermonters who have run for or served in public office.
Smith notes the part-time nature of the session means that legislative compensation does not equate to a full-time job, making it difficult for those who are not retired or have another source of stable income to serve. In addition, serving as a legislator does not come with health care benefits, creating another barrier for those not covered by Medicare or a partner’s health plan. Smith said serving with young children, including scheduling conflicts with meetings and school breaks and long commutes to Montpelier, also make serving a challenge.
Notably, members of the BIPOC community have faced additional barriers, including harassment and threats to their safety while serving.
The 38-page report includes data, charts, survey results and personal accounts given by respondents. In turn, Smith becomes the latest in a long line of researchers who have concluded Vermont’s legislative structure may not be ideal — even if it seems quaint and old-fashioned.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, state legislatures are divided into three categories: Green (full-time, well-paid, large staff); Gray (hybrid); and Gold (part-time, low pay, small staff). Vermont is one of 14 gold legislatures, including Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. On average, Gold legislatures spend the equivalent of half of a full-time job doing legislative work, Smith wrote. They are typically found in smaller, more rural states, and are considered more traditional than Green and Gray legislatures. The average annual compensation for Gold legislatures is $18,449, which includes salary, per diem and any other unvouchered expense payments, putting Vermont below average compensation levels at just over $13,000 per year.
Smith found that Vermont also mirrors the nation in lack of representation, equity and diversity of age.
Overall, NCSL found state legislatures are less diverse than the country’s population as a whole. Women in the U.S. reached a historical record for representation after the 2020 election, yet are still underrepresented.
BIPOC Vermonters are grossly underrepresented in the legislature. According to the United States Census, Vermont is predominantly white, with non-white Vermonters making up about 6% of the state.
In 2020, the makeup of the Legislature was 98% white.
Smith wrote. “Until state legislatures are more diverse, Congress, too, will lack diversity.”
“The (Legislature) should be representative of the state as a whole so that policies truly address the needs of all communities. However, the state has a long way to go to reach equal representation,” Smith wrote, noting perhaps fewer lawmakers would allow for raising compensation or adding some staff services. These subjects could be further researched, she said.
Meanwhile, Smith recommends better compensation and offering health care benefits, as well as potentially offering on-site child care or a needs-based stipend for child care elsewhere. The state could also align the week off for the General Assembly with school break. She concluded lawmakers should continue to telework to cut down on commute times and allow for greater flexibility.
Lastly, Smith called for stronger policies to support BIPOC victims of hate speech, and hold aggressors accountable for their actions. “Strengthening these policies is a far leap from addressing structural racism in Vermont, but it is a first step of many in providing a better way to support leaders of color in Vermont,” she wrote.
Seems like “redefining” might be an understatement.