State Sen. Pam Roach, a 25-year veteran of the Legislature, isn’t sure she’ll give up her Senate seat if she wins election to the Pierce County Council next year.
In most states, she’d have to choose one job or the other. But not in Washington.
Washington is one of a minority of states that don’t ban state lawmakers from simultaneously holding two elected positions, such as state senator and county council member.
At least 26 states explicitly forbid state lawmakers from holding more than one elected office, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Of the rest, Washington and several other states restrict legislators from holding another office that is deemed “incompatible,” but they vary in their interpretations of what that means.
For example, Washington’s attorney general has said the job of state lawmaker is not necessarily incompatible with that of city or county council member, meaning the same person can hold both jobs.
States like Minnesota, however, disagree, forcing lawmakers to resign if they are elected to a municipal or county office.
Other states that prohibit a legislator from holding a second local elected office include California, Montana, Oregon, Oklahoma, Florida, Maine, Ohio, Iowa, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, Alaska and Nevada.
“From a policy standpoint, there are a lot of really good reasons to prohibit people from holding two offices at once, because it can distract them,” said Hugh Spitzer, a professor of law at the University of Washington. “But that’s up to the Legislature, or the people if there were an initiative, to decide.”
Right now in Washington, only a few of the Legislature’s 147 members hold other elected offices. Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, is a Mason County commissioner who said he makes about $80,000 per year in that role.
Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-SeaTac, makes $14,400 per year as the SeaTac mayor, and Carol Gregory, D-Federal Way, earns $4,800 per year serving on the Federal Way school board.
Those lawmakers collect their local-government salaries in addition to the $45,474 per year they earn as state lawmakers.
Roach would collect an annual salary of $107,602 if she is elected to the Pierce County Council, bringing her total income from elected offices to about $153,000 per year if she keeps her Senate seat.
Some officials from other states said forcing lawmakers to choose between elected offices helps avoid conflicts of interest.
Dexter Johnson, counsel for the Oregon Legislature, said Oregon’s prohibition on dual-office holding “prevents someone from having undue influence.” It could pose a problem, for instance, if someone were allowed to serve on both the Portland City Council and on the Legislature’s chief budget-writing committee, he said.
“The concern would be that you would be making decisions that would too much benefit the Portland City Council because of your dual offices,” Johnson said.
Lee Slater, the executive director of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, agreed. Legislators in Oklahoma are not allowed to hold elected positions at the city or county level.
“I would think it would build in an automatic conflict for legislators as they make policies,” Slater said. “If they held another public office, they would be in a position where at times they may be appropriating money to themselves, for example.”
Washington’s attorney general, however, has concluded that for elected offices to be incompatible, they must be more directly related than legislator and county council member.
For instance, a city council member couldn’t serve as an elected commissioner for a port located within the city limits. That’s because land use or zoning decisions made by the city council would directly affect the port, said Joe Levan, legal manager for the Municipal Research and Services Center in Seattle.
In the Legislature, by contrast, “you’re generally not passing legislation that affects just one city or one county,” Levan said.
“Instead, you’re focusing on general purpose legislation that affects the whole state,” Levan said. “You wouldn’t have a situation of dual loyalties there, because the relationship is not as direct.”
Sheldon, who serves as one of three elected Mason County commissioners, said he thinks his jobs as commissioner and legislator complement each other — mainly by giving him a clearer understanding of how the Legislature’s decisions affect cities and counties.
“The state passes down an incredible amount of mandates to local governments, without the funding to implement them,” said Sheldon, who aligns himself with Senate Republicans.
He said voters can decide for themselves whether they are comfortable with having him serve in two offices. Since 2004, he’s been elected three times as county commissioner while serving in the Senate.
“The voters always have a say,” he said.
Spitzer, the UW law professor, said one reason Washington’s constitution might not ban lawmakers from holding other elected positions is that originally, most government posts were supposed to be part-time.
That still is supposed to be true of the Washington Legislature, which is scheduled to convene for 60 days in even-numbered years and 105 days in odd-numbered years. But recent budget disputes have pushed lawmakers to convene for additional sessions, leading them to spend a record-setting 176 days in session this year.
Spitzer said the way counties and cities operate also has changed since Washington became a state in 1889, in that most elected positions have become more involved.
“We didn’t have chartered counties back then. And we didn’t have full-time mayors and full-time county council members,” Spitzer said.
Roach, R-Sumner, said last week that she hadn’t decided whether or not she would vacate her Senate seat if she wins the Pierce County council race.
She said, however, that people who work as county officials can advocate especially well for their local constituents in the Legislature.
In the Senate, Roach represents a district that includes parts of South King County, but also a sliver of Pierce County that she would represent if elected as a county council member.
“You’re serving one as you’re serving the other,” she said.