Is this the year Oregon’s Legislature nixes nepotism? A lawmaker is pushing the conversation
It is a Salem tradition as reliable as cherry blossoms on the Capitol Mall. Each year as the legislative session begins, a number of lawmakers arrive at the statehouse with family members in tow.
For the weeks or months that follow, these wives, husbands, daughters and sons will serve as aides to their duly-elected loved one, earning taxpayer-provided salaries.
Oregon’s state Capitol, in other words, runs partly on nepotism — and always has.
While Oregon public officials from mayors to drainage district commissioners are strictly limited in hiring and supervising family members, lawmakers carved out an exception for themselves when crafting an anti-nepotism law 16 years ago. They reasoned that the practice of hiring family was simply part of the fabric of Oregon’s part-time “citizen legislature.”
But this year, one influential lawmaker says she wants to force what could be a heated conversation about whether the bipartisan practice should continue.
House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, introduced a bill last week that would eliminate lawmakers’ exemption from nepotism laws — a tweak that would make it much harder for them to give loved ones a state paycheck.
“There’s some question about if that’s a way we want to use taxpayer dollars,” Fahey said recently. “I do think it’s worth having the conversation.”
Fahey describes her legislation, House Bill 3106, as part of a package of ideas focused on government ethics and transparency. It joins proposals to enact campaign contribution limits, expand ballot access, push for increased disclosures from lobbyists, and prevent politicians from steering campaign money into their own pockets, among other things.
The high-ranking Democrat said she expects to hold hearings on those ideas this session in the House Rules Committee, which she chairs.
“The erosion in trust in institutions is obviously something that’s been happening for a while… so we really felt like it was important to put together a package of bills about strengthening our democracy and rebuilding trust,” Fahey said. “Some of these concepts are not in final form, and I don’t think we’re gonna pass everything that’s on that list.”
Fahey’s bill package contains plenty of proposals that would shake up the Capitol status quo — and potentially ruffle feathers among her colleagues. Many have found little enthusiasm in the past.
Still, HB 3106 is likely to be looked at especially unfavorably by some of Fahey’s peers. According to a roster of legislative aides obtained via a public records request, at least 15 of the state’s 90 lawmakers — one in six — have hired family members to work in their offices this session.
In the majority of cases, the family member is the highest-paid, or only, staffer in an office. Their roles vary in both time commitment and duties, depending on a politician’s needs. Relatives might serve as a lawmakers’ main point person on vetting bills, act as a friendly face to the public, or help edit newsletters.
The practice spans both parties, but currently skews Republican. It includes politicians up and down the legislative hierarchy.
Seven first- or second-term Republican lawmakers employ family members this year, records show: Republican Reps. Ed Diehl, Emily McIntire, Tracy Cramer, Brian Stout, James Hieb, Anna Scharf and Boomer Wright. But so do the longest-tenured members of the House and Senate, state Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, and state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene.
Both of the Capitol’s top Republicans, House Minority Leader Vikki Breese Iverson and Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, have chosen to hire family members for this year’s five-month session — a factor likely to ratchet up partisan friction if Fahey’s bill gains momentum. Breese Iverson is paying her husband, Bryan, $7,982 a month, the most allowed under the Capitol pay scale. Knopp, who has employed various family members over a decade of service, is paying his son Reagan $5,636 a month.
Neither Knopp nor Breese Iverson would talk about Fahey’s proposal.
Other elected officials in Oregon find it far more difficult to steer taxpayer money toward family. The bill legislators passed in 2007 says that public officials around the state cannot participate in hiring relatives or members of their household without declaring a conflict of interest, and cannot directly supervise their loved ones.
While some states have adopted similar provisions for their own legislatures, Oregon lawmakers in both parties have long argued anti-nepotism rules should not apply to their position.
Explanations for the practice include an insistence that lawmakers’ pay — about $35,000 a year for their part-time position, plus $157 for every day they’re in session — is not adequate to justify holding the job. By employing a spouse, lawmakers have said, they can bring enough money into the household to make public service pencil out at a time when legislative duties tend to extend well beyond yearly sessions. (The Legislature is once again considering a bill this year that would nearly double lawmakers’ base salary, making Oregon legislators among the best paid in the nation.)
Others make a more geographic case for hiring family.
Smith, the Heppner Republican, represents an eastern Oregon House district that spans most or all of five counties. Finding a nonfamily staffer to move from the district to Salem just for a legislative session is difficult, he says. His wife, Sherri, is a perfect fit.
“I could find an administrative assistant from Salem, but I’m pretty sure they’re not going to understand where Cottonwood [Canyon State] Park is in Sherman County,” Smith said. “They’re not going to understand where the Willow Creek Reservoir is in Morrow County. Having your spouse serve as a staff member allows you to communicate with someone who understands your district.”
Some rural lawmakers, meanwhile, do find nonfamily staffers. And some legislators who live extremely close to the statehouse opt to use the nepotism exception because, they say, they simply trust their spouse. Former Senate President Peter Courtney, a Salem Democrat whose district included the Capitol building, employed his wife for decades.
“It comes back down to the working relationship,” said state Sen. Brian Boquist, an Independent who hails from Dallas, Oregon, just west of Salem, and whose wife, Peggy, makes $6,385 a month in his office. “It’s a good thing if you can hire a qualified close relative. That enhances the representation of the district across the board. To me that’s always been a good thing.”
Boquist believes taxpayers get far more for their money when a spouse or other family member works as an aide. “It is 24/7,” he said. “My wife spends more time working with constituents in the grocery store, at Walmart, on the street corner, and going out and visiting other places.”
Sen. Floyd Prozanski agrees. His wife, Susan, assisted him for years in an administrative capacity from their Eugene office without receiving a check from the state. Prozanski says her decades of experience as a newspaper copy editor have proven invaluable when he is preparing communications for his constituents.
“I just reached a point and said, ‘Well, you’re a professional in your own right and should be compensated for that work,’” said Prozanski, who pays his wife $1,279 a month. “I will put my staff, including my wife, up against anybody as to not being qualified.”
For state Rep. Ed Diehl, a Scio Republican who was just elected to his first term, there was never any question his wife, Jamie, would become a member of his staff. Before retiring, they’d worked side-by-side for more than 15 years. Jamie Diehl now earns $7,110 a month as a legislative staffer.
“I am many times more productive as a legislator with her on the team,” Rep. Diehl said. “I campaigned on [the idea of] my wife working for me. If voters don’t like that, they shouldn’t have voted for me.”
There are some limitations to a lawmaker’s authority to hire family members. As Senate Republican Leader, Knopp had initially planned to bring his son on as an employee for the entire Senate GOP caucus. But while legislative attorneys first blessed that move, the Oregon Government Ethics Commission eventually issued an opinion that it would run afoul of the anti-nepotism law.
Knopp wound up hiring Reagan Knopp anyway, but as an employee in his district office rather than for the entire caucus.
Fahey, the House Democratic leader, acknowledges that Republican lawmakers from far-flung districts make valid points about hiring family, who sometimes move to Salem for a legislative session and find it hard to get other temporary employment.
But both Fahey and House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, have said they want to move a number of “ethics” bills this year, and are at least holding open the possibility that HB 3106 is among them.
“I’m committed to leaving the session with a pretty clear package on these issues,” Fahey said.
Besides the anti-nepotism bill, that package could include another Fahey bill, House Bill 3108, that would prevent lawmakers from using campaign funds to pay companies from which their households earn income.
The idea has been introduced in the past, but might have special resonance this session. Breese Iverson, the House Republican Leader, turned heads last year by funneling campaign money she helped control to a firm run by her husband, who then purchased ads and other media for Republican candidates.
Breese Iverson declined to comment on either HB 3106 or HB 3108, saying in a statement “they will go through the legislative process, just as the other 1,800 proposed pieces of legislation will.”
Other potential bills include:
- House Bill 2003, which would institute a system of campaign contribution limits in Oregon
- House Bill 2034, which would require lawmakers to recuse themselves from votes in which they have a conflict of interest. Lawmakers are currently only required to announce their conflict.
- House Bill 2038, which strengthens rules about the sources of income public officials are required to publicly disclose
- House Bill 3105, which as currently written would create a task force to “make recommendations to improve and standardize lobby ethics and to improve transparency on how money and lobbying impact decision making within the legislative process.”
Any of those bills, if they move forward, could ratchet up partisan tensions in a session in which both parties have so far agreed on broad areas of focus, starting with solving the state’s housing crisis.
One bill on the list that doesn’t worry Smith, the eastern Oregon Republican? The anti-nepotism bill. In his more than two decades in the House, he’s seen similar proposals die again and again.
“About every two years, a Portland-centric legislator offers this legislation without understanding the cultural bias it has to rural Oregonians and rural legislators,” he said. “I dismiss it.”
CORRECTION: Due to incorrect information supplied by legislative administration, an earlier version of this story misstated several salaries. OPB regrets the error.
Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.