Bringing the Economy Home

How Lawmakers’ Day Jobs Affect Policy Decisions In Idaho

Emilie Ritter Saunders / StateImpact

Idaho's Senate Chamber sits empty nine months out of the year. Lawmakers typically in session from Jan. until late March or early April.

Almost half of the legislators in Idaho work in agriculture or business when they’re not making policy in Boise.

Over the last month, StateImpact Idaho has collected basic demographic information on the 2013 Idaho Legislature.  Some of the information we gathered came directly from lawmakers. Some of it was gathered from Project Vote Smart, the Idaho Legislature, or Nexis.

We wanted to better understand the makeup of the Legislature, and whether the people making laws in Idaho truly represent the overall population.  When you look solely at occupation, it’s safe to say Idaho’s citizen Legislature isn’t very representative of Idaho.

The U.S. Census Bureau collects occupation information, but categorizes it differently than we have.  We know from Census data that 5.3 percent of Idahoans work in an agriculture-related field (this also includes forestry, mining, fishing and hunting), while 21 percent of Idaho legislators work in ag.  Census data also tells us that the majority of Idahoans work in educational services, health care, and social assistance.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has been tracking lawmaker occupations since the 1970s.  Their latest data shows most state legislatures are made up of full-time politicians.  That’s not the case in Idaho. Idaho’s Legislature isn’t full-time work.  Lawmakers meet in Boise for about three months each year.  Most are paid $16,116 plus housing and travel expenses.

As is the case nationally, a large number of Idaho legislators are retired.  Nineteen percent of Idaho’s legislators don’t work outside their duties as an elected officials.  Nationally, that number is more like 16 percent.

It’s not uncommon for lawmakers to be retired, especially citizen legislators, given they meet for three months during the winter.  For CPAs, that’s peak tax season.  For teachers, that’s smack-dab in the middle of the school year.  For farmers, it’s off-season.  For business owners, it’s likely difficult to take any prolonged time away from the office.

Sen. Shawn Keough (R-Sandpoint) does have a full-time job outside of the Legislature.  She works in public relations when she’s not in Boise.  It’s a job she doesn’t entirely step away from during the months she spends legislating in Boise.

“I’m blessed to work for employers that see the value of public service and support me in that role, but it comes at a cost to any employer on a variety of levels, politically and business wise.”

“The preponderance of Idahoans have to work jobs, and families have to work generally speaking, two jobs to make ends meet,” says Keough.  “Is that reflected here in our Legislature, and those issues that come along with that?  Those are questions voters need to be asking themselves.”

The way Idaho’s system is set up lends itself to a certain kind of person who is able to commit to the job of part-time policy-making, says Dave Adler, director of Boise State’s Andrus Center for Public Policy.

For instance, Adler says, if the annual session were held in the summer instead of the winter, Idaho would likely see more teachers and fewer farmers running for election.  He says more young people who are still in college might be inclined to run for office.  Adler says the occupational makeup of Idaho’s Legislature is reflected in policy decisions.

“If you have the Legislature filled with teachers – undoubtedly, education would become a priority in this state, which it is not now,” Adler says.

Our data show just one Idaho legislator works in education, although several are listed as retired educators.  Meanwhile, nearly 26 percent of Idaho’s legislators work in business.  That number includes small retail owners, consultants, construction company owners, and entrepreneurs.

Adler says that because more than a quarter of Idaho’s current lawmakers work in the business world, tax policies tend to favor those industries.  One example of that could be the large number of tax exemptions available to businesses in Idaho.  Or the 2012 tax cut for Idaho’s top earners, which largely targeted small business.

“The reality is, institutions and entrenched practices affect legislative behavior,” says Adler.  “By changing those institutions you could affect different legislative behavior.”


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