The Providence Journal's Political Scene column this week reported on how much some of our state's legislators make working for special interests that lobby the government. Keeping an eye on these conflicts is definitely important, but people often miss the more fundamental points. The way these stories are usually framed gives the impression that more transparency and reporting can take care of problems, but that isn't the case.
Take Democrat Senator Valarie Lawson of East Providence. The Projo reports that she receives $30,160 from the National Education Association of Rhode Island as its vice president. So, when she pushes legislation to benefit that super-strong player, eyebrows go up, because she is the special interest.
But go a little deeper. Lawson's teaching salary is somewhere around $70,000 (putting aside additional money she might get for having advanced degrees or other boosts). She also gets around $15,000 for being a legislator. That's roughly $115,000 income from all three sources, even if we don't count the huge benefits teachers get.
How does she have time to do her job as a teacher with all of these other paid responsibilities? When she was the president of her local union, local members and taxpayers split the cost of giving her two days a week for union work, but what gives, now? No doubt the NEA is happy to accommodate her schedule in order to have her at the State House doing its bidding, but when it comes to a conflict, who gets the short end her constituents or her students?
Or take Democrat Senator Ryan Pearson (Cumberland, Lincoln). Pearson makes $178,536 as a vice president of some sort for Citizen's Bank. That's a hefty salary for a man in his early thirties who received his Bachelor degree in finance just ten years ago and whose work experience is most notably as a collegiate staff assistant to U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.
But put aside his meteoric rise. How does a big-time executive for a bank have time to serve both his employer and his constituents during the six months of the annual legislative session? Do any other VPs at Citizens have part-time jobs, too?
This is a familiar story. If we're going to put so much power in the hands of legislators who can’t pay their bills through that job alone, we're going to get legislators who profit some other way. For some of them, maybe the profit is the sense of doing something good for the community. Some just like to feel important or powerful. But for many, there’s going to be some other self interest.
The question for voters is whether they're really the top priority of the people they're handing all that power to.