South Carolina legislators, for the paltry sum of $12,000 a year, with a modest travel and expense allowance, get to travel the state and be away from home for a couple of nights a week five months of the year. That is if they're lucky.
The truth is that those who serve in the General Assembly had better be ready to become "Road Warriors" in order to do their jobs effectively. Having served nearly two decades in the State House, House Speaker Bobby Harrell knows all too well what kind of time and travel burdens are part of the lives of House and Senate members:
Being a State Representative is considered to be a part-time position, with legislative salaries at $10,400. Many people run for the General Assembly thinking that this is only a 3-day-a-week, 6-month-a-year job. But with all the time spent on constituent services back home, preparing and researching legislation, off-session committee meetings, coming back for vetoes or special sessions, nothing could be further from reality. House members are the closest representatives to the people, and most members try to make themselves very accessible to the people they represent. This translates into a great deal more than 3-days-a-week dedicated to the needs of their community, leaving less time to devote to their families.
The struggle to balance your time between family and legislative duties is a difficult one. Many of our members still have children at home, which means that school events, sport events, plays and other family functions will be going on during the legislative season. My youngest child is now in her first year at college. No matter what is going on at the State House, I always made my family the priority. I’ve spent many session nights driving back to Charleston to attend sporting events or just to have dinner at home knowing full well that an early morning trip back to Columbia was in my future.
House Agriculture Committee chair Jeff Duncan (R-Laurens) is one of those who put in a lot of travel time, telling us:
It is about 1 hour down and 1 back each trip. For most years I have traveled back and forth every day to be with my family. I travel a lot with my business, so not a big deal. Lots of drive time gives me time to catch up on phone calls and thoughts.
Fellow blogger Senator Kevin Bryant (R-Anderson) also finds the drive time allows him a chance to catch up on calls:
During session, I go down either Monday night or Tuesday morning and return on Thursday afternoons. I usually have many phone calls (hands free - Bluetooth) to return, so the time isn't necessarily wasted.
Beaufort Rep. Shannon Erickson, who has one of the state's longest drives, told us "the days that I travel can be 12 hours from start to finish easily without any break". She reports her travel time as:
2.25 hours twice per week to Columbia, January – June (99 hours), but there are also times when I must go back & forth to Beaufort during a legislative week that makes it pretty accurate AND that’s not counting “in district driving”. For July – December travel is about 3 days per month to Columbia for meetings (total about 81 hours) but there is much more “in district driving” (Burton to Fripp Island – length of my district lines, is about 16 mile span) and all over the county driving since our delegation chairman’s office is in Bluffton and our County Council meetings are held at times in Hilton Head & Bluffton as well.
When asked what could help make things easier on legislators who were struggling to lessen the impact of legislative service, Duncan believed the legislature "could and should shorten the session and do Committee work during the off months". Erickson had several ideas:
Video conferencing would be the best! We have very conveniently located Technical Colleges that could be utilized for that probably. We could shorten our legislative session like several other states have done. There would still have to be committee meetings aka some travel but the combination of a shorter legislative session and video conferencing would help quite a bit.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell suggested greater family involvement would help keep legislators better focused:
There are only so many opportunities for you to enjoy these experiences with your family. I greatly encourage every new Legislator entering the House to make their family the top priority, no matter how busy we may get or how serious the issues become.
Bryant shared Harrell's outlook on the importance of keeping family close, sharing that his "wife and kids go down to Columbia occasionally. Politics ads stress to family life, and their presence helps."