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Higher legislative pay just gets you richer lawmakers, study says

Even as one S.C. lawmaker is proposing a raise for Palmetto State legislators, a new study is throwing cold water on the idea that paying lawmakers more will increase the number of lower-income legislators.

The Duke University study found higher legislative pay does not mean more blue-collar candidates win elections. In fact, the study found states that pay lawmakers more still have legislatures dominated by white-collar professionals.

“Reformers argue higher pay ... would have the benefit of increasing economic diversity in our political institutions,” said Nicholas Carnes, assistant professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy “Our research shows this isn’t true.”

In December, state Rep. John King, D-York, prefiled legislation that would let voters decide whether to increase the annual salary of S.C. legislators to $42,830 a year from $10,400.

A funeral home director, King argues the change is necessary because “we won’t get the best and brightest minds in South Carolina because those people have to take care of their families.”

What reformers overlook is the extraordinary cost of campaigning – in money, time and energy, Duke’s Carnes said.

“Running for office takes months and months,” Carnes said. “Candidates have to attend dozens of public events and get educated about different issues. They have to make campaigning a full-time job, and that is the barrier that keeps out people who are not wealthy. If you would lose your home while campaigning, it doesn’t matter whether the job – if you win -- offers $10,000 or $80,000.”

The study found the number of former blue-collar workers holding elected state offices was lowest (about 2 percent, on average) in states paying the highest salaries, and highest (about 7 percent) in states that pay the least.

Just 2 percent of congressional seats and 3 percent of state legislative seats are held by people who worked in manual labor or the service industry before getting into politics, the study says.

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