Joining the state legislature for the first time can be a lot like going off to college. There are orientations, new people to meet, room and board to sort out — comedians might say the jokes practically write themselves.
But for freshmen state legislators, just getting ready to do the work they were elected to do can be a full-time job, with a real cost.
"Don't expect to get paid for a month, is what they keep telling me," said Missouri Rep.-elect Matt Sain, referring to advice he's getting from more experienced lawmakers.
The job has yet to begin. The Missouri General Assembly starts work on Jan. 9; the Kansas Legislature on Jan. 14.
"How do you properly equip yourself, when you didn't know about that until you got elected?" asked Sain, a Democrat who upset incumbent Republican Rep. Kevin Corlew in the midterm election. He will soon represent Missouri's 14th House District.
The mostly hypothetical question harkens back to recent headlines about U.S. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez struggling to afford the move to Washington, and resonates with Xu, a Democrat who beat Republican Rep. Melissa Rooker in Kansas House District 25.
"There's a reason that our (Kansas) legislatures have looked the way that they have historically: retired or independently wealthy," Xu said.
Kansas state legislators are paid $88.66 per day they are in session.
"I think in Kansas that's roughly about $18,000 a year to work, so that's a pretty significant pay cut," said Xu, who works as a marketing analyst for the nonprofit Children International in Kansas City, Missouri.
Missouri representatives pull in about $36,000 a year, so financial issues may be less acute. Still, the off-and-on-again legislative session schedule can be a challenge for many lawmakers who hold other jobs.
"Your work has to be very flexible with you," said Sain, a clerk for the law firm Bautista LeRoy. "That's another drawback (and) why people don't run: They don't want to lose their job, or they don't want to switch career fields so they can be in session for six months and do something else for six months."
This year state lawmakers will meet in Jefferson City from January until May. In Topeka, lawmakers stay until June. Both state legislatures have in recent years also convened for special sessions after regular schedules have ended.
"The structures in place aren't there for normal people to be in the legislature," Xu said. But he's hopeful that can change.
"I think part of the solution is normalizing running for office for normal folk," he said.
For Xu, municipal elections in 2019 are yet another opportunity to tip the balance of power toward the common man.
"I think we should see a lot younger, more normal folk running for that, than the traditional 'qualified folks,'" said Xu.
Listen to Sain and Xu's entire conversation with Steve Kraske here.