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Want more young Kansans to run for office? A coming pay raise in the Statehouse might help

Democratic Rep. Rui Xu and his family hold a goat at a Kansas City Chiefs event prior to the Super Bowl. Left to right: Xu, daughter Astra, and wife Kearsha.
Rep. Rui Xu
Democratic Rep. Rui Xu and his family hold a goat at a Kansas City Chiefs event prior to the Super Bowl. Left to right: Xu, daughter Astra and wife Kearsha.

Kansas lawmakers are set to receive a substantial pay raise next year. Some say that's key to recruiting more young and working class people to run for office.

At just 35 years old, Democratic Rep. Rui Xu is in his sixth session as a Kansas lawmaker. While it’s a role he’s happy to serve in, it does come with costs.

For example, instead of staying in Topeka during the session like many lawmakers, he drives two hours each day to and from his district in Johnson County. It’s so he can be home with his wife and a young daughter.

“I love this job. I think I’m pretty good at it,” Xu said, “but I don’t love it to the extent that it’s worth missing five-sevenths of my daughter’s life.”

Rep. Xu
Kansas Legislature
Rep. Rui Xu's official portrait on the legislative website.

Extra travel and time away from family are just a couple of the challenges that come with being a Kansas lawmaker, and they’re some of the motives behind a recent push to give legislators a substantial pay raise.

Currently, rank-and-file Kansas legislators make about $30,000 per year. That includes both a salary and a per diem, which covers daily expenses. Starting next year, that will nearly double to $58,000 – at the suggestion of an independent commission on lawmaker pay.

Legislators created the panel to study their pay and make a recommendation, partly to make it look less like they were giving themselves a raise.

Proponents of the raise, like Republican Rep. Tory Marie Blew, said the current pay often prevents average, working-aged people from running for the Legislature, especially younger people and those with a more modest income.

“Paying somebody not even $100 a day, you’re not going to have a true citizen legislature because only those independently wealthy can do it,” Blew said.

Blew is another one of the youngest members of the Kansas House. Now in her seventh year as a lawmaker, she was elected at just 23 years old.

To help make ends meet, she works another 20-hour job from Friday to Sunday back home in Great Bend. She said some other lawmakers work remote jobs during the session.

“It’s not uncommon to leave the capitol at 8 p.m., 10 p.m. and see that there’s people in their offices working up here still,” Blew said.

Rep. Blew
Kansas Legislature
Rep. Tory Marie Blew.

Blew is expecting her first child soon and has a vested interest in making the job more attractive to people her age.

She’s also spearheading an effort to develop a child care center at the Statehouse, not just for lawmakers but also state employees.

Blew said people at different stages of their lives can bring different perspectives.

“I want to make sure that we do have younger folks who are up here and bringing in that knowledge,” Blew said.

But not all lawmakers support the raise. Some argue being in the Legislature should be more about a passion for service than the money.

Republican Senator Rob Olson tried on the Senate floor to convince his colleagues to reject the raise entirely. He later pushed a much smaller pay increase as an alternative.

“This is not a place where you should get rich,” Olson said. “What you’ll have is senators and House members that will be here for a long period of time.”

The salary currently rests just below the median income in Kansas but will be securely above it after the raise. It will also be about $15,000 higher than the average state lawmaker’s compensation in the United States.

But raising lawmaker pay doesn’t always have the intended result.

Nicholas Carnes is a political scientist at Duke University who specializes in public policy. He co-authored a 2016 study that found higher pay doesn’t necessarily translate to more economic diversity in state legislatures.

Carnes said there are often bigger barriers to winning a seat. That could be a lack of time or knowledge, or simply raising the money it takes to run a campaign.

“If you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck, you can’t reduce your hours at work to run a campaign and still make ends meet,” he said.

But Carnes still believes improving legislator pay is worthwhile. He said research shows better pay can have other benefits, like encouraging lawmakers to put in more effort and take the job more seriously.

“You don’t want to cheap out on the people who make choices that affect you and everyone around you in your state,” he said.

Daniel Caudill reports on the Kansas Statehouse and government for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can email him at dcaudill@ku.edu.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Daniel Caudill reports on Kansas state government for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service.