Maybe you’re thinking about running for the legislature. Perhaps you’ve already run and won your office. Congratulations!
With this great accomplishment comes expectations. You might have an idea of what you think life is going to be like. Maybe you’re having moments of doubt and wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into.
The good news is that others have been there before you. There are things about public service that can inspire and motivate even the grumpiest person. There are also challenges that can tire and frustrate even the most enthusiastic individual.
Now that I’ve been away from the legislature for a year, one of the common questions I get is “do I miss it?”
I answer that question here, and share the highs and lows of what to expect serving in the state legislature:
1. Pro: You Can Make a Difference
Many people don’t realize how much of their government actually happens at the state level. State legislators are responsible for making big decisions about all state government spending. You have the opportunity to increase funding to schools, lower taxes, change social programs, or whatever you think important, assuming you can convince enough other legislators that your idea has merit.
Serving in the legislature means you participate in something much bigger than yourself. Some legislators speak of finding new purpose in their work or being in a position to make a difference in the lives of others. That was certainly my experience. The work is nothing but rewarding.
For example, one of the bills I sponsored was to save the school in Big Stone City, South Dakota. Big stone is a small community located on the South Dakota-Minnesota border in the northeast part of the state. The school has a unique arrangement with its Minnesota sister-city: k-8 students attend school in South Dakota, while high school students attend school across the border in Minnesota.
A problem developed because the number of students attending the k-8 school in South Dakota fell below the 100 student minimum required to keep a school open.
Brainstorming to save the school, I came up with an idea: allow South Dakota schools that share its students with a school on the other side of the state border to drop below the 100 student threshold in portion to its number of grades. So for example, Big Stone provides k-8 school, or nine grades. Nine-thirteenths x 100 students = 69 students as the new threshold.
The bill passed with the support of every legislator except one and was signed into law by the Governor.
Experiences like this are far more humbling and gratifying than I could ever express in words.
2. Con: Feelings of Helplessness
When you’re an elected as a legislator, people look to you for help. They contact you and expect you to solve problems. While you do all you can, sometimes you can’t do enough.
I introduced a bill that turned out to be very controversial. Maybe you’ve heard of it. I called it the student-privacy act, but opponents called it the bathroom bill. Essentially it said that if you have boy anatomy you have to use the boy facilities at public schools, and if you have girl anatomy you have to use the girl facilities.
I developed the bill after two school superintendents called me for help. They were worried about a threat from the federal government to withhold federal funds from school that restrict transgender students from use of school showers, changing rooms and restrooms.
I wrote a bill I thought was a common sense. It protected the bodily privacy of our children while at school. Eighty percent of the legislators agreed with me, and both the House and Senate voted to pass the bill.
But bills don’t become law without the Governor’s signature. Though popular with fellow legislators, it wasn’t popular enough to over-ride the Governor.
Sometimes, no matter how hard you work, no matter how right the cause, things don’t go your way. That’s just part of politics.
3. Pro and Con: Name Recognition
Let’s be honest, you get into politics because you want to make a difference. People call you. The media does stories on your initiatives. When you walk into a restaurant, people pretty much know who you are.
If it bothers you that people know your name but you don’t have a clue who they are, you’re probably not a good candidate to run for office. On the other hand, if you like people, and especially if you like helping them, you likely possess two of the most important qualities to be a good legislator.
4. Con: The Commitment Can Be Hard on Families
State legislatures meet in the state capitol. In South Dakota, the vast majority of legislators drive at least 3 hours each way every week, stay in a motel room and are away from their family and business. While some retired legislators can bring their spouse with them to the Capitol, the majority of legislators cannot.
Serving is also very time consuming. There’s a lot of work to do, and it keeps you busy. When the Legislature is meeting during the week, there isn’t a lot of personal time.
5. Pro: The Opportunity to Work with Amazing People
The sense that you are working toward worthy goals, along with the shared need to do more with less, creates a natural camaraderie among legislators. Working together to pass legislation or just
bouncing ideas off one another, legislators develop strong bonds.
6. Con: Not Enough Money
There is never enough money available to do everything that needs to get done. Different legislators have different priorities. When enough legislators agree that something is a priority, then it generally gets funded – but there is always competition for every dollar. If what you want to do costs money, you need to figure out a reasonable way to get it paid or chances are it won’t be funded.
Speaking of money, in some states, legislators serve full time and receive a full time salary. In South Dakota, legislators meet for around 40 days a year and receive a $6,000 annual salary. No one in South Dakota serves as a legislator for the money.
7. Pro: You Get to See Your Great State
Road trips were fun in college and they’re still fun now. You’re going to be doing a lot of driving. Expect to speak at Rotary meetings, go to open houses, business networking events and pose with school groups for social media pictures.
All of these activities give you a great opportunity to see the state that you represent. You learn a great deal about your state, the people you serve, and the route to and from the capitol.
8. Pro and Con: You’re in the Spotlight
Do you want to post that funny photo on social media? Think again. Do you want to let loose on a night out with friends? Maybe you shouldn’t. When you’re a state representative, your days of anonymity are long over.
On the upside, it’s your time to shine. You won your office, and you can step up and do all of those things that you said you would do one day if you ever became a state representative. That means it’s time to take a long look at your job. To inspire, and to be inspired. It’s your time to represent your great state.
These are my eight pros and cons about serving in the legislature. There are many more, but these are the first that come to mind. The big picture is if you enjoy serving people or trying to make the world a better place, you should consider the legislature.
Do I miss it? What do you think?