Democratic lawmakers Reps. Karin Power, an attorney, Rachel Prusak, a nurse practitioner, and Anna Williams, a social worker, say they can no longer afford to serve in the state Legislature.
The three lawmakers announced on Monday they will not be seeking re-election.
In recent years, the Oregon Legislature has been made up of younger and more diverse lawmakers. In 2021, when Rep. Andrea Valderrama, D-Portland, was sworn in; it was the first time in the state’s history when women made up the majority of House seats. The same year, a record number of people of color became lawmakers. But there is a reason why the state continues to be represented primarily by people who are older, retired, or no longer have kids at home.
The pay is low, and the hours are long. The Legislature is technically a part-time job, paying a base salary of about $33,000. Lawmakers meet every February, with sessions that cannot exceed 160 days in odd-numbered years and 35 days in even-numbered years. But special legislative sessions are becoming increasingly more regular; with lawmakers called back to Salem to tackle unfinished business at unexpected times. There are never ending constituent demands, people desperate for help who expect unlimited access to lawmakers. And as the state grows, the budget and policy demands have also grown.
“Balancing our work, multiple day jobs, families and our service has become unsustainable,” the three women wrote in their resignation letter. “How much of a check on power can we be if we earn a base salary of less than $33,000 a year? How can we adequately oversee a state budget of more than $25 billion, with dozens of different state agencies?”
In recent legislative sessions, it’s been evident how the younger, more diverse lawmakers’ experiences have informed policy decisions.
On Monday, Power, 38, brought her child to the House floor. She spoke in favor of a measure to address the state’s childcare workforce shortage with her 18-month-old son in her arms.
House Bill 4005, which state representatives approved, is part of a larger child care package that Power was instrumental in crafting. All told, the package would increase money for child care providers who accept Employment Related Day Care (ERDC) subsidies, put money toward recruiting and training child care providers and make other investments in the struggling system. During the pandemic, the state lost about 20% of its child care providers. Child care costs are high, waiting lists to get into daycares can stretch for months, if not years, and there is a shortage of child care providers statewide.
The issues the lawmakers are tackling are not theoretical, Power said.
“We’re working on these because these are our families, they are our friends, we’re right there in that time of our lives where it’s a lot to balance,” Power said. “... I and my wife have lived out what everyone is living out right now … It’s duct-tape, holding it together.”
Power noted that women have been forced out of the workforce at record numbers during the pandemic, in large part due to the need to care for their families.
“I think we’re picking this up on a state-by-state level because we’re electing younger people who are living through this right now,” she said. “I’m so tired after the last two years of doing work while taking care of my kids at home and I’m also so grateful for my childcare providers.”
Two years ago, when the first lockdown happened and schools shuttered, Valderrama’s daughter was entering kindergarten. The 4-year-old couldn’t read or log on to a computer by herself. So, Valderramma did what millions of women across the country did: she quit her job as an advocate for communities of color to help her daughter navigate online learning.
“While it was a big decision, it was logically the right thing to do,” Valderrama said.
It was also scary, since Valderrama is a single mom, and her family relied on her wages.
“I was very scared about whether I would be able to make ends meet,” she said, adding the family would have gone hungry if it weren’t for the help of food pantries.
This session, Valderrama worked on legislation to send a one-time $600 payment to working Oregonians who are earning the least amount of money, those who claimed the earned income tax credit on their 2020 tax returns. The goal is to help people pay for essential needs, like rent and groceries. The money will be sent to them directly through a bank deposit or a check.
“Hunger is real. It’s an experience that I didn’t think I would ever face as an adult … but it was something (a security) that was so quickly taken away when I had to leave the work force,” Valderrama said. “It would have been such a relief to me and I know it would be such a relief to others to know they can pick up fresh foods at a local grocery store (with the extra $600 check). Health care, groceries, and the cost of meat are outrageous right now.”
Valderrama is hoping to keep her seat and running for office, but has said the current legislative salary makes it a challenge and is a barrier for many people hoping to run for office.
Lawmakers considered giving themselves a pay increase this legislative session, but the effort has seemingly failed. Raising legislative salaries is often politically fraught; lawmakers often fear backlash from the optics of increasing their own pay. But proponents have argued that it would allow for a more diverse pool of candidates to run for office.
The current base pay for Oregon lawmakers is around $33,000 a year, and the bill under consideration would have increased it to about $63,500 per year.
Power, Prusak and Williams address the issue in their joint resignation letter: “We continue to perpetuate systems that leave Black, Indigenous, Latinx and women legislators behind. Most people cannot afford to even consider this job ... If this system is built for the financially well-off or the retired, will it ever work for you? What interests does this current structure serve? "
Having a Legislature made up of people with different backgrounds isn’t a partisan issue.
Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, is a farmer, a small business owner and also a working mom. She has been deeply involved in working with trying to reach an agreement with the Democrats on the farmworker overtime measure, a bill that one of her children testified on during a legislative hearing. She also worked on a measure with Power to give nursing mothers more job protections.
“I never thought I would come to Salem and work on a bill about milk expression,” Boshart Davis said. “I think a mom, or a working mom’s perspective is valuable and I definitely appreciate bringing it to Salem, along with all my other perspectives.”
It’s not just women who are balancing a lot right now.
Recently elected Rep. Ricki Ruiz, a Democrat of Gresham, who called being in the Legislature his “dream job,” just had a new baby. Ruiz also has another job working with the parks department with the city of Gresham. But with the baby, the 27-year-old has had a lot more expenses. He and his wife have moved in with his in-laws to lower costs.
“The way the Oregon Legislature was built, it was made for us not to be here in the first place,” Ruiz said. “We are proving that we can make it … But we can barely make it.”