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Capitol expenses fall short

No legislator goes to Salem expecting to get rich.

In fact, many legislators say the opposite is true — they end up seeing a dramatic decline in their incomes even as they put in long hours at the Capitol building.

"If I was not married to someone who had a good job, I couldn't do this," Rep. Peter Buckley, an Ashland Democrat, said.

Legislators receive $1,854 a month and $123 a day when they are in session, which lasts about one month in even-numbered years and about six months in odd-numbered years.

Many legislators travel back and forth from their hometowns every week. Some stay in apartments, others in hotels and some, including Buckley, share an apartment.

Buckley said it's a challenge for him to make end's meet, though he said he's never been paid well in his life and has learned to survive on very little.

He recalls his highest salary as a political consultant brought him $36,000 a year, while most of his adult life he's earned in the mid-$20,000 range.

"With my background in theater, I've always had a low-cost lifestyle," said Buckley, who has worked in the theater business as a writer, director and consultant.

As the Joint Ways and Means Committee co-chairman, Buckley helps decide the fate of multi-billion-dollar state budgets.

But he depends on his $22,000-a-year salary as a legislator plus his daily allowance during the session to help pay his household bills.

"I haven't had a consistent job since I took on Ways and Means," said Buckley, who was first elected in 2005 and became co-chairman of Ways and Means in 2008. "The Legislature takes up 90 percent of my working hours."

His wife pays for the mortgage and electrical bill, while he buys the groceries and pays for the phone bill.

Buckley's frugal lifestyle in Salem allows him to save two-thirds of his daily legislative allowance for bills back home. Since his wife has health insurance, Buckley said, he doesn't need the state health plan, so he's reimbursed another $50 a month.

Buckley said that when he's not in session he writes scripts for plays and has provided the voice-over for a documentary. He's also been involved in marketing for groups involved in fine arts in Ashland.

Many legislators, including Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, bring their spouses to Salem.

Considering the many 12-hour days he puts in, Richardson said he just hopes the salary covers his living costs in Salem.

"I'm getting paid minimum wage now," Richardson said. "There is no comparison to what I used to make as a full-time attorney."

Richardson, who retired from his law practice a year ago, said he understood long ago that public service would require sacrifices, and he doesn't expect any sympathy for doing it.

Richardson and his wife, Cathy, have found a one-bedroom apartment only three blocks from the Capitol that they rent year-round.

During the legislative session, Richardson's wife works in his office, earning $2,500 a month, less than other staff members who earn up to $3,400. Many legislators, including Rep. Sal Esquivel, a Medford Republican, hire their spouses to work in their Capitol offices during the session. Sen. Alan Bates, a Medford Democrat, formerly had his wife working in Salem.

Richardson said legislators from Eastern Oregon make even greater sacrifices, driving seven or eight hours to get to Salem every week. Almost all the legislators from outside the Willamette Valley are Republicans, he noted.

"It's the Republicans that have to live in a hotel or apartment," he said. Democrats from the Willamette Valley get to sleep in their own bed.

Richardson's commute from Central Point is just over three hours. He said he tries to make it home every weekend to see his grown children and to go with his family to church so he can remain connected to the local community.

Richardson, now in his sixth term in the House, noted it can be particularly difficult for legislators who are separated from their families for extended periods. Rep. Wally Hicks, a Grants Pass Republican, has a 1-year-old baby that he sees only on weekends, Richardson said.

Bates tries to balance his work in Salem with being a Medford doctor, but concedes that he has to cut back considerably on his medical practice when the Legislature is meeting.

"I lose money while we're in session," he said. "We usually have to go into savings a bit."

He still tries to maintain his practice, working a couple of days a week in Medford during the early part of the legislative session.

But during the last month or two of the session, Bates — who has been in the Legislature since 2001 — is in Salem full time, getting to work around 7 a.m. and often not leaving the office until 8 or 9 p.m.

His partners and nurse practitioners take care of his patients while he is away.

When the session is over, Bates said, he works extra shifts and takes limited vacations to make up for the lost revenue and build his savings back up.

"I've been doing this for 13 years," he said. "The patients have gotten used to it."

Sometimes his schedule can be a little crazy. Years ago, after his long drive back to Medford from Salem, he performed a vasectomy in the evening to accommodate the needs of a patient.

"You make a certain amount of sacrifices to pull this off," he said. "Nobody put a gun to my head to do this. It's a public service."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email dmann@mailtribune.com.

Capitol expenses fall short