OLYMPIA — State Rep. Hans Dunshee drives a 14-year-old Toyota Echo, lives in a modest home he partly rents out and otherwise survives off the income of being a state legislator — $42,106 a year.
The 60-year-old lawmaker used to run a small business designing septic systems but says he gave it up years ago because being chairman of the House Capital Budget Committee ate up too much time.
“I was having customers call while I was working on stuff and couldn’t do them both well. I had to make a choice,” said Dunshee, D-Snohomish.
So he became a full-time lawmaker.
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Although Washington is supposed to have a part-time “citizen Legislature,” a Seattle Times analysis of financial-disclosure reports found that roughly 27 percent of state lawmakers hold no outside job.
Some of them, like Dunshee, depend solely on their state salary, plus per diems, but most also have supplemental income such as pensions, investments or a working spouse. Several full-time legislators are financially independent and appear in no real need of a state salary.
In fact, The Times analysis found that, overall, the state’s 147-member Legislature is
wealthier, older and less diverse than the population it represents.
This finding is no shock to political scientists.
“The typical state legislator nationally is like a mid-50s white guy,” said Todd Donovan, a political-science professor at Western Washington University.
That is true in Washington as well. The median age for state lawmakers here is 53. The median age for all state residents over the age of 18 is 45. And while the state is 72 percent white and split 50-50 by gender, 90 percent of the state Legislature is white and two-thirds is male.
“We have a progressive state like Washington that touts itself for diversity, yet it is striking that the Legislature has very few people of color in it,” Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace, said, adding he thinks that’s improving.
In terms of gender, Washington is doing better than most states with about 32 percent of its seats held by women compared with 24 percent nationally.
The proportion of women in the Washington state Legislature has varied over the years. In 1999, Washington led the nation with 41 percent of the seats held by women.
Lawmakers do come from diverse backgrounds. More than a third have backgrounds in law, education and health care or worked as a government employee. Another 12 percent indicated they owned a business. The rest come from a variety of occupations including unions, the military and law enforcement.
Sorting out incomes
Figuring out how much money legislators make is nearly impossible.
Under state law, they are only required to record on disclosure reports what they make within broad ranges for each source of income, using codes from “A” on the low end to “E” on the high end.
For example, a lawmaker who makes more than $40,000 a year from a job or investment would put down “Code D,” which has an income range of $40,000 to $99,999. There’s no way to know where they land within that scale.
Likewise, the maximum income for many lawmakers can’t be determined because their financial-disclosure reports use the high-end “Code E,” which means $100,000 or more.
If they take in millions of dollars annually, there’s no way to know.
All that said, The Seattle Times analysis found that roughly 46 percent of state lawmakers have household incomes of at least $100,000 a year. By comparison, only 25 percent of households statewide make at least $100,000 a year.
Eight lawmakers reported two or more income sources of at least $100,000 a year. One dozen lawmakers reported at least $100,000 in annual income from investments, not jobs.
Washington state’s salary of $42,106 a year for lawmakers has not changed since 2008 and is on the higher end of what states pay nationally.
Only 13 states pay more. California, which has a full-time Legislature, topped the list in 2013 with an annual salary of $90,526, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Many states, particularly in the South, pay lawmakers relatively little. Texas, for example, paid $7,200 a year. Its Legislature meets every other year unless a special session is called.
Washington lawmakers, in addition to their salary, get a per diem for living expenses, such as renting an apartment during legislative sessions. It varies depending on how long the Legislature is in session.
They also can be reimbursed for certain expenses such as cellphone bills, newspaper subscriptions and office furniture. If lawmakers do not go into a special session, they’re eligible for up to roughly $13,000 in per diems and expenses in 2014.
In addition, they’re eligible for the same health insurance that state workers get. The state picks up 85 percent of the premium on average for state employees.
Lawmakers also can vest in the state pension system after five to 10 years in office, depending on which plan they pick. More than 70 percent of the Legislature is paying into the state pension system, according to state records. Most of them have enrolled in a defined-benefit plan that guarantees a certain percentage of their state salary for each year served in office.
Nationally, more and more lawmakers are dumping their outside jobs as the population — and demands from constituents — increase.
“For a long time attorneys were the No. 1 occupation for legislators. Now it’s full-time legislators,” said Morgan Cullen, a senior policy analyst with the NCSL.
Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, of Medina, is a full-time legislator and financially independent.
Although he earns $50,106 as majority leader, state records show Tom, a former real-estate broker, also has income from investments and his wife’s family-trust fund. He lives in a waterfront Medina home assessed at more than $5 million.
Tom said he couldn’t be majority leader if he had to hold down another job, given the time commitment. But he maintains that for most legislators it’s still possible to be a part-time lawmaker, noting that he worked as a Realtor when he was first elected in 2002.
“You have to get very good at saying no. You can’t go to every dinner invitation,” Tom said. “If you don’t manage your time, this place will eat it up. You can make this a 60-, 70- or 80-hour a week job.”
Washington state Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, Columbia County, says it has gotten harder for lawmakers to maintain an outside job.
It’s difficult for companies that are trying to cut costs to let legislators off several months each year to go to Olympia, he said. Last year the Legislature spent 150 days in session because of stalled budget negotiations.
Still, he said it’s better for lawmakers to hold outside jobs. “You have a better way of keeping in contact and in touch with your constituents when you are working out there,” he said.
Nealey has a private law practice he tends to outside the Legislature. He’s been in office for five years.
“I made the decision to run at least one more term and then take a hard look,” he said.
Dunshee says he has no regrets about becoming a full-time legislator.
As chairman of the Capital Budget committee he plays a central role in deciding how the state will spend billions of dollars on new buildings and public-works projects.
“How many people in the world get to affect something like how many schools are built and what the quality of them is?” he said. “I get to drive by buildings and say, ‘I did that.’ ”
He’s thought ahead to what he’ll do when he leaves the Legislature.
“There is a pension that comes from this place and Social Security and I should be able to make it.” he said. “But I won’t be spending six months in Hawaii or anything.”
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @awgarber.
Cheryl Phillips: 206-464-2411 or email@example.com. Twitter: @cephillips. Staff reporters Brian M. Rosenthal and Jim Brunner contributed to this report and material from The Seattle Times archives was used.