Innovations | Jobs Back Home May Allow Part-Time Lawmakers to Serve

9/27/2019

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Jobs Back Home May Allow Part-Time Lawmakers to Serve

By Helen Brewer

Citizen legislators may be one of the most authentic embodiments of the American ideal of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Each year, they leave their hometowns for a few months to serve as elected state lawmakers, then return home after their sessions end to live as members of their communities.

In the 16 states with part-time legislatures, having another job back home may be essential to lawmakers’ ability to serve. In addition to the months spent in session, lawmakers may have to research policies or serve on committees during interims. Many may need year-round incomes, however, to supplement their part-time legislative salaries. For this reason, they often have careers as attorneys, business owners, farmers or teachers.

Legislative leave laws in at least 16 states (15 with part-time legislatures) require employers to grant legislators a leave and, after sessions end, restore them to their previous positions without loss of seniority. Several of the laws explicitly state that the time an employee spends on legislative leave cannot affect his or her eligibility for retirement benefits.

Leave laws help protect part-time legislators’ outside jobs, but they have limitations. In six of the 16 states, the laws apply only to public employers. And only New Jersey requires legislative leave to be paid.

Four more states have legislative leave laws that are less robust: Oklahoma, for example, requires legislative leave, but only for railroad employees. And in North Dakota, employers can choose whether to grant it.

Lawmakers in states without leave laws must work with their employers to decide how they will split their time between the two jobs.

Colorado does not have a leave law, for example, but Representative Matt Gray (D) takes time away from his work as an attorney each year during session. He said his ability to split his time between his legal and legislative duties “wouldn’t work without a team environment on the private employment side.”

Most leave provisions do not apply to small-business owners who employ fewer than five or, in some cases, 10 people, or to those who can demonstrate they would suffer a significant hardship if an employee takes legislative leave.

Making legislative service accessible to the greatest number of citizens, many believe, only strengthens the legislative institution and our form of representative democracy. For those choosing to serve in a legislature, but who might be deterred by the possibility of sacrificing their careers and year-round salaries, legislative leave policies offer a real option.

Helen Brewer interned in NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening last summer.

Does your legislature have a success story to share? Chances are good your innovative idea can be applied in other states. Email natalie.wood@ncsl.org.

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