Legislators find path to better jobs — for themselves
State Sen. Margaret Carter of Portland is the latest in a growing line of legislators who have left their lawmaking duties for better-paying jobs elsewhere in state government.
Voters should be bothered by this trend for a variety of reasons - including the potential for conflict of interest and favoritism in hiring. But this practice also raises the question of whether elected representatives and senators are breaking a commitment to voters when they abandon their seats before completing the term of office they were elected to serve.
Carter, who served as co-chairwoman of the budget-setting joint Ways and Means Committee, opted to accept a job with the Oregon Department of Human Services. Meanwhile, Lane County Sen. Vicki Walker was an exceedingly last-minute appointment by Gov. Ted Kulongoski to fill a paid position on the Oregon Parole Board - a job for which she was never a finalist. And state Rep. Larry Galizio of Tigard has decided to resign his House seat and accept an administrative position with the Oregon University System.
Adding to public skepticism
These three Democratic legislators are hardly breaking new ground. Earlier this decade, Kulongoski named Tigard's Max Williams, a Republican, as the head of the state Corrections Department; Polk County Republican Lane Shetterly to head the Department of Land Conservation and Development; and Sen. John Minnis of Wood Village, another Republican, to lead the agency that oversees the training and certification of police officers.
Legislators who won these appointments defend their selections and admit no wrongdoing. Galizio, whose hiring was not a gubernatorial appointment, says his decision was a natural progression. While serving as a citizen legislator, he said he earned his doctoral degree and routinely engaged in informational job interviews.
Whatever reasons these legislators give for leaving midterm, their decisions are unsettling. Candidates for the Legislature run for office knowing in advance that their annual pay of $21,612 is very limiting. When they depart early, their districts are subjected to a lapse in representation until a replacement - someone who typically has far less experience - is selected.
But the most sensitive issue is perception.
It's no secret that all these jobs pay more than a legislator makes - by a factor of five or more. This migration from the Legislature to state jobs will reinforce public skepticism about whether some legislators use their offices to position themselves for more lucrative public employment. Legislators, after all, are in charge of setting budgets and passing laws that affect all state agencies.
Where's the commitment?
Beyond those obvious concerns, we believe that legislators ought to serve their full terms - and that voters ought to expect such a commitment. We suspect voters would have had much less enthusiasm for electing Carter, Walker or Galizio if the candidates had told them upfront that they might resign midterm to accept higher-paying public positions.
Next time around, we hope voters will ask the obvious question of candidates seeking election to the Oregon Legislature: If elected, will you serve your entire term?
It's a question we certainly will ask.