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The Dartmouth
June 23, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Tobeck: Paying Our Elected Officials is Actually a Good Thing

Compensating legislators adequately can create a more diverse state government that better represents New Hampshire.

Dartmouth students have often found ways to engage in politics at the state level. Several have run to represent Hanover in the state house, most notably Garrett Muscatel ’20, who won a seat in 2018. I like to think that this helps us pay a little more attention to local politics than we might otherwise. However, the state legislature has a perhaps unexpected, yet glaring, problem: elected representatives are paid far too little. Currently, New Hampshire legislators are paid only $200 per term in office plus some compensation for travel costs. Compare this to our neighbors across the Connecticut River in Vermont. Their legislators — who are paid around $700 per week during session — make more in a week than New Hampshire state representatives will make over the course of their two year term.

This abysmally low salary — if it can even be called that — creates an environment where those who have prior financial resources and extra time are far more likely to be able to serve in state government. The state’s salary for elected officials effectively excludes people from middle and lower income backgrounds from running. They must figure out how to put food on the table at home, something that is extremely difficult without some sort of real salary. The question of how to afford spending their time lawmaking in Concord is just not a realistic one to ask of them. Oftentimes, these are younger people whose perspectives would contribute greatly to the political process. 

There are some who might be opposed to paying our elected representatives more, believing that politicians represent the “elite” of society and are out of touch with the needs of the average person. They say that by paying legislators more, we’d only be supporting those who have little interest in doing the same for us. It would be understandably difficult to justify spending government dollars on legislator salaries if there is little trust that they will be working to benefit the average taxpayer. But the reality is that we have out of touch representation because we don’t compensate legislators fairly, not the reverse. By not paying our elected officials a livable wage, we are only perpetuating the cycle of having a state legislature dominated by older, wealthier individuals that are perceived as being part of the elite.

In 2015, the average age of New Hampshire lawmakers was 66 years old — making it the oldest legislature in the United States. Even with the average age of the state house declining to 61 years in 2018, New Hampshire still falls far behind other states in diversifying the age of our legislators — an indication that there is still more progress to be made. Given that the New Hampshire state house is the largest state legislative chamber in the country, New Hampshire can and should be ground zero for having elected officials that are reflective of their constituents. 

I don’t mean to suggest that having older people in office is a bad thing in and of itself — there is a lot of value that comes with life experience. At the same time, there are numerous examples of older politicians who have had difficulty engaging with modern topics. Former U.S. senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah — then age 84 — went viral in 2018 for questioning Mark Zuckerberg about how Facebook could be provided to users for free while remaining a business. Meanwhile, young legislators nationwide, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, and Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-FL, expressed how they struggled to find an apartment in Washington D.C. due to high rents and a lack of money prior to their election. Increasing legislative salaries would allow younger legislators like these to better perform their duties without having to worry about financial burdens. By having a legislature that is diverse in age and economic status, we can complement the experience of older legislators with that of younger generations, becoming even better equipped to handle the issues of our day. 

We entrust our elected officials with confronting and solving some of the most divisive and pressing issues of our day. Paying them fairly not only dignifies the work that they are doing, but provides a larger portion of the population the chance to participate in our democratic system. We are better served if those that we vote into office can focus solely and completely on working for New Hampshire, something they currently cannot do. The financial costs associated with completing the people’s work should not be prohibitive to getting things done — our state government should do better and provide for our elected officials.

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.