In politics there is an unspoken rule for public officials not to talk about their own salary. It's the pornography of pay, akin to peeking at someone's underwear.
The Oregonian recently ran a story about the extraordinary number of trial judges leaving the bench. It's a tough job, but one reason they're leaving was barely mentioned:
The pay for our circuit (trial) and appellate judges is somewhere between 47th and 49th in the 50 states. A first-year associate lawyer at one of Portland's top law firms is paid more than the chief justice of our Supreme Court. That is beyond ridiculous, it is embarrassing.
Judges are only one example. We pay our legislators between $15,000 and $30,000 a year and yet are surprised that they don't take vows of poverty or that they hire their spouses as legislative aides. Oregon's attorney general is paid less than $80,000. The governor (who turned down a raise) makes more than $30,000 less than his chief of staff. The Oregon State Bar pins the median salary for all attorneys at about $95,000. The top prosecutor in most Oregon counties is paid about $77,000. (Some counties supplement that salary so that the elected DA doesn't make less than his or her deputies.)
What does that say about the value of the work done by lawyers entrusted with decisions -- including whether to seek the death penalty -- that affect the lives of Oregonians? It's fashionable to claim that money doesn't matter, and it's considered beyond rude for an elected official to complain about her salary. Naturally, when Oregon's median salary is less than $40,000 it may be difficult to feel sympathy towards someone who earns twice that amount. But it's simply denial to believe these low salaries don't affect our ability to attract and retain the best people. All too often we lose them to the private sector, which appropriately rewards those with the most experience and responsibility.
I love my job, but the truth is I'm able to indulge in the luxury of starting my fourth term as the chief law officer for Clatsop County because I have no children. I didn't buy a house 15 or 20 years ago when real estate was cheap. My wife is a freelance editor. If we were sending a couple kids to college, we would have a difficult time justifying our career choices -- and likely would have made different choices years ago. Friends with whom I went to law school at the University of Oregon earn, as trial lawyers, two to three times what I can ever hope to make in public service.
Now, I didn't become a prosecutor to be wealthy, and, of course, there are intangible rewards for public service. Those of us fortunate enough to be elected have an opportunity to shape policy, and there is great satisfaction in working to make Oregon a better place to live.
That said, it's unreasonable to continue to expect elected officials who make the most important decisions in government to come from rich families, or to marry a rich spouse or to live an ascetic lifestyle simply for the pleasures of living in Oregon and not Washington or Connecticut.
The new and re-elected members of the Oregon Legislature have the power to change our culture of poverty. If we can talk to young people about sex and drugs, we certainly can have a real discussion paying our elected officials a fair wage.
Joshua Marquis has been the elected district attorney in Clatsop County (Astoria) since 1994. He was just re-elected to a fourth term and he serves as vice president of the National District Attorneys Association.