October 23, 2023

A look into the politics of Prop. 413

How Tucson’s struggle to pass city council raises is part of a bigger political conversation.

360 tucson chambers city hall City of Tucson's council chambers in downtown.
AZPM Staff

The Tucson Mayor and City Council haven’t received a raise in 23 years.

In the latest of many attempts to boost their pay, a volunteer commission drafted Proposition 413, which if passed, would more than triple city council member’s salary, and bring the Mayor’s salary close to six figures.

Democrats are saying raising the salary to a livable wage is a crucial step in securing a more representative city council. Republicans are calling for a slower increase with more restrictions, but the back-and-forth speaks to a bigger question. How much should elected officials be paid, and does that determine how well the government does its job?

The Numbers

With an annual full-time salary of $24,000 a year, each Tucson council member currently makes less than Arizona’s minimum wage per hour.

Prop 413 would raise that salary to $76,600, and the Mayor’s salary from $42,000 to $95,750.

The actual dollar amount is decided by a volunteer commission, called the Citizens’ Commission on Public Service and Compensation, which meets every two years to review and recommend potential salary increases.

2023’s recommendation was recommended by six out of the seven commissioners. The one dissenting member thought the proposed salaries were too high. The other six said raising the salary to a livable wage would “attract Tucson citizens of all backgrounds” to public service.

They also noted the growing financial responsibility of the Mayor and Council, saying that the Tucson budget has increased by 180% since the last approved raise in 1999.

Public Service

At the heart of this debate, according to Dr. Lisa Sanchez of the University of Arizona’s School of Government and Public Policy, is a disconnect with collective perceptions and reality of public service.

“We tend to think as Americans, of public officials as being these sort of altruistic public servants. And so if we think of them in that way, that suggests that they should be kind of not motivated by incentives like pay,” she said. Sanchez said the idea that running for office is something one does out of the goodness of their heart is dated. The reality is, public service is a career, and in some areas, a very lucrative one, even at the local level.

Fresno, California, a city virtually the same size as Tucson, pays its council members around $80,000 annually.

Mesa, Arizona, also similarly sized, pays its council members slightly less at $41,000 a year, which is still nearly double the current Tucson salary.

There seems to be no standard for a city council member’s salary in the United States.

Dr. Eric Hansen of Loyola University Chicago also recognized the discussion of how much city officials are paid can easily turn political.

“If you don’t see the value, if you feel distant or disconnected from your members of government, why would you reward that with higher pay?” he said.

The Debate

But there is loud support in Tucson for Prop 413 from progressive activist groups. They argue that since the city council does not offer a living wage, only people in certain financial positions are able to run for office, and those people don’t represent the majority of Tucson residents. They want to see salaries go up so the working-class, women and minorities can afford to give up jobs in the private sector to be full-time public officials.

“One of the largest structural barriers to seeing more leaders of diverse experiences and backgrounds representing us is the low pay for public servants,” wrote Laura Dent of Activate 48 in Tucson’s official voter information.

Dr. Hansen and Dr. Nick Carnes of Duke University published one of the only academic studies examining the claim that increasing legislative salaries incentivizes more working-class people to run for office.

Their 2016 study used data from state legislatures, and found that actually, economic diversity was the same or worse among elected officials in states that paid them more.

They found evidence that paying politicians more increases the appeal of public office, especially to professionals who already earn high salaries. And although a bigger paycheck might mean more people want to run, Carnes said salary is just one feature of a political system that has many barriers to entry.

“Anybody who can’t give up 20 to 40 hours a week to sort of volunteer for their own campaign, kind of can’t afford to run for office. And that seems to be the bigger barrier for working class people,” Carnes said. “This is built into the nature of the process. It’s burdensome to run for office. As long as you have campaigns as your way of selecting people to run for office, there’s not going to be an easy answer.”

Wittenbraker said she has spent $30,000 out-of-pocket for her mayoral campaign, and admits that her financial situation allows her to run.

“I feel that our elections are far too expensive. If I didn't have the career that I have, if I didn't have the financial situation that I have… I'm willing to make that sacrifice but not everyone is in a position to be able to make that sacrifice” she said.

Tucson Decides

Wittenbraker said she was not against an increase, but wants a new proposal with more guidelines, like rules on outside employment and hours.

“It’s an excessive increase. And even I acknowledge that Regina Romero makes a good point in her argument, that how do you attract people to run for office when it’s so grossly underpaid? But let’s lay out some parameters. And if I were on the commission, I would recommend incremental increases with time served,” she said.

It’s important to note that Carnes and Hansen’s research focused only on income. Even less research exists on whether salary has any impact on underrepresented groups choosing to run for office, such as women and people of color. Prop 413 supporters say that Tucson wants to see a more diverse city council, and approving a higher salary will help get these groups elected.

The fact remains that the Tucson City Council is still at the low end of the pay scale, especially for a city of its size.

Even though there may not be evidence that salary could overhaul an elite bias, experts like Dr. Carnes says everyone might benefit if their elected officials are paid more.

“Millions and millions of dollars are being raised and spent on your behalf as a city, you don't want to cheap out on what you're paying people to manage that process. Politicians who are better paid tend to devote more effort to the task of representing their constituents, they tend to miss fewer votes, they tend to be more present,...Raising the salaries you pay politicians is a good thing. Because it gets them to treat it more like a job and treated less like a volunteer activity,” he said.

Only the upcoming election will tell whether Tucson has decided it’s time to give its elected officials a raise, or if they will have to wait another two years and try again.

The last day to request a ballot for the Nov. 7 election is Friday, Oct. 27.

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