SALEM, Ore. — A bill introduced in the Oregon Legislature that would ban lawmakers from hiring family members as aides has sparked a debate about nepotism at the state Capitol.
Under current law, public officials are barred from employing relatives unless they declare a conflict of interest. Legislators, however, are exempt from that rule. The bill introduced by the Democratic House Majority Leader Julie Fahey would change that.
“There’s some question about if that’s a way we want to use taxpayer dollars,” Fahey told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “I do think it’s worth having the conversation.”
At least 15 of the state’s 90 lawmakers — 1 in 6 — have hired family members to work in their offices this session, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported, citing a roster of legislative aides it obtained through a public records request.
In the majority of cases, the family member is the highest-paid, or only, staffer in an office, the news outlet reported. Relatives’ roles can vary from helping editing newsletters to interacting with the public.
The practice spans both parties, but currently skews Republican, according to OPB. 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 also hired family members for this year’s five-month session. 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 $5,933 a month, according to OPB.
OPB reported that neither Knopp nor Breese Iverson would speak to the outlet about Fahey’s proposal.
Democratic Sen. Floyd Prozanski’s wife has assisted him for years in an administrative capacity from his Eugene office. He told OPB that her decades of experience as a newspaper copy editor made her qualified for the job.
“I just reached a point and said, ‘Well, you’re a professional in your own right and should be compensated for that work,’” Prozanski, who now pays his wife $5,117 a month, told the news outlet.
Oregon lawmakers in both parties have long argued anti-nepotism rules should not apply to their position, saying that lawmakers’ pay — about $33,000 a year for their part-time position, plus per diem payments while the Legislature is in session — isn’t adequate compensation. (The Legislature is also considering a separate bill that would raise lawmakers’ base salary.)
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. His wife Sherri works in his office. He told OPB that finding a nonfamily staffer to move from the district to Salem just for a legislative session can be difficult.
“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 told OPB. “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 staffers who they aren’t related to. And some legislators who live close to the Statehouse said they hire loved ones because they can trust them. Former Senate President Peter Courtney, a Salem Democrat whose district included the Capitol building, employed his wife for decades.
Fahey, the Democratic House Majority Leader, described her legislation, House Bill 3106, as part of a package of democracy proposals also seeking to enact campaign contribution limits and push for increased disclosures from lobbyists, among other things.