A Day in life of a Montana Legislator

How much do public servants get paid?

Most NSNT readers know how much their respective elected tribal officials are paid for their service. As a Northern Cheyenne tribal member commented, “Most tribal council members go from broke to flush when elected. Suddenly many are driving new vehicles.”

In Montana, the average salary for tribal council members ranges from $40,000 – $80,000 per year, depending upon the Tribe – about $20 – $40 bucks an hour. But, since it is salary vs. hourly wage, they do not necessarily have to go to work on a regular basis, punch a time clock, etc. It is guaranteed money during the time they are elected. Some would call for more accountability says more than one tribal member.

Plus, they gain opportunity for ‘per diem’, traveling to meetings, attending Denver March Pow Wow , INFR, important conferences held in Hawaii and other interesting places. 

But most tribal members do not know how much State Legislators are paid. Across the nation, it varies widely, but Montana, North and South Dakota are among the lowest paid according to a website called Money/Economy.com which tracks and posts such public information.

Montana Legislators are paid $11.56 per hour, according to the website, although Representative Jonathon Windy Boy thinks it has inched up to $12.00 as of the 2023 session. The average wage in MT is a little over $20.00 per hour. The Website notes: It’s the Big Sky State, not the Big State Legislator Salary State. You’ll make a little over half of the average MT wage on an hourly basis should you win the chance to represent your district.

In addition, Legislators receive a daily per diem to help with the costs of lodging and other living expenses. They also get mileage to drive to and from the legislature for business. However, if they decide to take a quick run home on the day off, that is not covered. “We don’t have too much time for family when the Legislature is in session,” remarked Senator Jason Small, Northern Cheyenne.

They must secure their own lodging, rental for even a single room runs about $1,200 a month, according to Windy Boy. In addition, these folks must cover the expense of their permanent dwelling, family expenses and business back home. And, of course, a person must eat, dining out mostly required, unless there is a reception where tasty snacks are served. Former State Representative Sterling Small, Northern Cheyenne once joked that had it not been for those parties, he would have starved to death during the legislative session. “I must have gobbled down a thousand pounds of chips, dips and veggies,” he laughed. “If we got really lucky they offered artificial crab or tacos.”

The MT Legislature only meets every two years for about four months.  In the off-time, legislators are not paid unless they attend state committee meetings or other approved events. That may be a primary reason that many legislators are of well means or retired. “You have to be able to afford to do this. It is certainly not a money-making proposition”  remarked Senator Jason Small, Northern Cheyenne. In real life, Small is a journeyman boilermaker, then dragging down about $50/hour.

South Dakota legislators receive $151 per day and North Dakota State politicians run slightly higher at $186 per day, according to the website. Keep in mind, this is a part-time proposition, they are only paid when the legislatures are in session.

That doesn’t mean however, both Small and Windy Boy told NSNT, they are on total vacation during the off time.  They are still obligated to deal with constituent concerns, attend various functions, meetings, local partisan events, etc. mostly out-of-pocket expense. Montana is a large sparsely populated state so word gets around about which politicos are available to have their ear bent. Thus, they do.

State officials are held very accountable for their time: daily roll calls are held and made available to the public: committee meeting attendance is also recorded; votes are put on websites and so forth.

The representatives usually put in about 60 hours per week, Monday through Friday and in the second half of the session, because there is so much business to get done, now they are working Monday-Saturday. A typical day Windy Boy explained, starts about 7:30 a.m. for a caucus meeting; showing up for roll call after that; then an endless round of committee meetings; votes on the floor; meeting with constituents and trying to avoid the ubiquitous lobbyists who haunt the hallways, trying to catch the “ear” of elected officials. Recently, Windy Boy returned a call to a constituent at 9:45 p.m., “We just got done,” he apologized.

Former US Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell explained that the life of a congressional official is much the same, perhaps a harder gruel because it is full-time. “When I think back, my regret is the toll it took on my family,” he said. “Sure, Congressional members are paid well, but to do that job well, it consumes your life. I could have made much more money by staying home and tending to my jewelry work.”

According to the Cambridge dictionary, “Public Service” is something that is done or provided to the public because it is needed and not to make a profit.

Many good legislators in Montana, including tribal members are proven good public servants.  “My own people don’t know what I do up here (in the Legislature) commented Windy Boy.

(Contact Clara Caufield at acheyennevoice@gmail.com)

The post A Day in life of a Montana Legislator first appeared on Native Sun News Today.

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