This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.
In his two decades in the Texas Legislature, Rep. Garnet Coleman has learned to hustle.
The Houston Democrat has gone bankrupt once, come close to it one time after that and managed to rebuild his finances yet again while remaining in office. During certain periods, he said, his wife has worked two jobs to support their family so he could stay in the Texas House.
"I'm using this word not in the negative connotation, but it's when you feel like a hustler,” he said, describing his lean times. "You feel like you are hustling your dollars, and you don’t have the confidence that the money is going to be there."
To supplement the meager $600-per-month legislative pay, Coleman said he would maximize the $150 per diem to help support his family while the Legislature was out of session. He got a fuel-efficient car to drive from Houston to Austin to stretch mileage reimbursements. Instead of dining out with his colleagues during the session, he said, he would return home to eat microwave meals. He would find the cheapest living arrangements possible, which one session included a garage apartment infested by mice.
“You do everything you can to legally realize more money and revenue for yourself and your family and really lower expenses,” he said.
The state's founders envisioned the part-time Legislature as a place where there would be no room for full-time politicians. Tying lawmakers to their districts for all but five months every two years would keep them connected to the constituents they had been elected to serve. But in the modern Legislature, the paltry pay that goes along with being expected to earn a living elsewhere can have the opposite effect — narrowing the ranks of potential office-holders to only those who can afford to do it full time.
That’s because for most members, the demands of public office aren't quite limited to January through May in odd-numbered years. The needs of their constituents and the issues they must follow to make public policy don’t go away during the interim, nor do the campaigns they must orchestrate to stay in office.
“When I decided to run, I looked at, well, 140 days every other year, you can probably hold your breath that long,” said former state Rep. Rob Eissler, a Republican from The Woodlands who was first elected in 2002.
As his responsibilities as a lawmaker grew, that impression quickly changed, he said.
“It starts to engulf you. You lie in bed at night trying to think of ways to make things better, and that you have opportunity to do it,” he said.
Now a lobbyist after losing his 2012 primary, Eissler said the chance to continue to help shape public policy is part of the reason he’s back in Austin.
“What's funny is that now I can get paid for things that I was doing for nothing,” he said.
Of the states that offer legislative salaries — nine offer only per diem compensation — Texas finishes close to last, according to figures from the Manhattan Institute’s Empire Center Project. That's in front of South Dakota, which pays members of its Legislature $12,000 per two-year term, and New Hampshire, which pays its lawmakers $200 a year. The next-closest of the heavily populated states is Florida, where legislators, who meet for 60 days each year, pull in about $30,000 annually. In California, full-time legislators are paid roughly $95,000 a year; in New York, they make almost $80,000 to work year-round.
Voters in Texas last approved a lawmaker pay hike in 1975, an increase from $400 a month to the $600 a month they are currently paid. Back then, Texas lawmakers were still among the lowest paid in the nation. The win came after then-Dallas Rep. Paul Ragsdale successfully qualified for food stamps, an effort to make a political point about the inadequate pay. A story also emerged at the time that Dave Allred, a House member from Wichita Falls and son of a former Texas governor, had been sleeping in his Capitol office during the session to save money.
According to the Houston Post, Allred visited friends’ houses when he needed to take a shower. He told the newspaper he put up with the living conditions “because, and I know this sounds schmaltzy, I love public service.”
Despite Allred’s zeal, questions linger over whether it is fair to impose what can be a significant financial hardship on public servants who still must earn a living on the side — and whether the system gives greater opportunities to lawmakers who are independently wealthy.
The constituents of a lawmaker who must devote time to working outside state government are at a disadvantage, said Rep. Elliott Naishtat, an Austin Democrat and attorney. He added that a part-time, low-pay Legislature empowered legislative staff and lobbyists — who are paid full-time to monitor issues affecting state policy — over elected officials.
“It's difficult to run a $180 billion venture or ‘business’ on a limited, part-time, biennial basis,” he said. “Those of us who have to work for a living have less time to devote to being the best legislator that we can be because we have to work.”
Not all lawmakers agree. Rep. James White, a Hillister Republican who left his job as a schoolteacher to take office in 2011, said he didn’t consider the low pay a “hardship.” But he did acknowledge that as a single man without a family it was easier for him than others to keep a modest lifestyle. When he is not in Austin or campaigning, White does consulting work for the forestry industry to generate income.
Because of the flexibility it offers, consulting can be an attractive option for lawmakers who need to pay their bills, said Coleman, who also runs a Houston consulting firm. But even there, it’s difficult to avoid the challenges that face lawmakers in most professions.
“People don’t like to pay folks who aren’t there,” Coleman said, noting that the novelty of hiring a legislator can quickly wear off.
And the employers who are eager to hire a lawmaker might not be doing it for the right reasons, he said.
“Wink, wink, they are really trying to get you to work on their issues inside the government,” he said. “And if it's somebody who is legitimate, they don’t want the risk of the actual legislator getting into trouble, because it pushes back on them, it makes them look bad.”
There hasn't been a major move to raise lawmakers’ annual compensation since 1989, when a measure that would have set salaries at around $23,000 a year — or one-fourth of the governor's pay, which the Legislature sets — failed 2-to-1 at the ballot box.
More than two decades later, the political tides remain unlikely to shift.
“I don’t see it as I work and I am a member of the Legislature,” Coleman said. “I see it as I work so I can be a member of the Legislature.”