Ore. lawmakers juggle legislating, making a living

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SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Serving in a citizen Legislature is a career-juggling act for most Oregon lawmakers.

A majority of the members of the 77th Legislative Assembly — about 67 percent — hold jobs outside of being a legislator.

At the same time, the number of lawmakers who are retired from their profession or work full time has been steadily rising nationwide.

Taking a leave of absence, some lawmakers said, was never an option because it would disconnect them from their communities.

Rep. Greg Matthews, D-Gresham, describes following two career paths in a way superheroes might depict their dual identity if one wasn't secret.

One moment he's walking through the front doors of the state Capitol dressed in a suit and tie. The next minute he's keeping the streets of Gresham safe as a lieutenant for the city's fire department.

"There are days when my mornings start off at 2 a.m. with a house fire or an apartment fire," Matthews said. "We're loading the hose, cleaning the equipment and by the time my shift replacement at 7 a.m. is on duty, I'm showered, in a suit and headed to Salem."

The difference between the two jobs, he quipped, is there's no protective gear to turn to when tension heats up in the Legislature.

"It is time consuming, but I also think that being a firefighter connects me to a lot of issues and discussions in ways that most people aren't," said Matthews, chairman of the House Veterans and Emergency Preparedness Committee.

In Oregon, the Legislature convenes annually, but sessions may not exceed 160 days in odd-numbered years and 35 days in even-numbered years. Lawmakers used to meet once every two years before 2012.

The National Conference of State Legislatures tracks the number of full and part-time legislatures, splitting states into three categories.

Fewer than a dozen states — mostly those with large populations — have legislatures where lawmakers are paid enough to make a living without requiring outside income, according to a fact sheet from 2009.

In those states, which include California and New York, the average annual compensation is $68,599 and lawmakers have large staffs.

Oregon lawmakers make $1,854 a month; presiding officers make $3,708 a month. Legislators also get a per diem of $123 when the Legislature is in session to offset expenses.

The average base salary for an Oregon legislator is about $22,248 annually.

Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, a family physician, said when he became a lawmaker he had to keep both jobs for financial reasons.

When the Legislature is in session, he drives more than 200 miles from Salem to Medford to see patients, mainly during the weekends.

"If you decide you want to do this and still want to support yourself and your family you have to be really tightly organized and maximize how you spend your time," said Bates, who only had about five minutes for an interview because he was at a health care conference.

All typically goes as scheduled, although there was one rare instance where he had to leave the Legislature for a week and a half to attend to the medical practice after both of his partners became simultaneously ill.

For some people, he noted, working as a lawmaker isn't a feasible option because it's too difficult for them to give up a portion of their income.

"You can't make a living doing it," Bates said. "You either have to be retired or independently wealthy."

The number of full-time legislators has steadily increased nationwide from 1976 to 2007 to more than 16 percent, making it the largest occupational category of legislators in the country. So have the number of retirees who became lawmakers, according to 2007 data from The National Conference of State Legislatures, which was the most updated numbers available.

In Oregon, about 33 percent of lawmakers are either retired or work full time, meaning they do not have a second occupation.

Morgan Cullen, a policy analyst for the NCSL, said being a lawmaker demands more time than it used to. Legislative sessions are longer, districts have become more diverse and populated and the number of interim assignments has increased.

Yet the salaries of lawmakers have not kept pace with their increasing workload, lagging behind the private sector.

"It's been more difficult for legislators to justify raising their own salaries when they have to cut services," he said. "It just creates a massive political firestorm anytime legislators vote to increase their compensation."

Rep. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, owns a traffic control company called KT Contracting Company Inc. in Salem and Highway Specialties LLC, while also being a mother of four children.

Thatcher said that if she didn't live in the Salem area, juggling all those duties would be nearly impossible.

Despite the difficulties, she enjoys being part of a citizen Legislature.

"I like that fact that we have to go back to a job and to real life; that we can get out of that building and have a breather because I think it helps us stay grounded," she said.

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Information from: Statesman Journal, http://www.statesmanjournal.com

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