Is the Grass Greener for Part-Time Legislatures?

By: - May 14, 2004 12:00 am

California’s full-time Legislature has considered offbeat bills over the years to regulate the amount of water in a dishwasher, make being poor a crime and prohibit pet stores from selling un-weaned parrots.

Such legislative peculiarities prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) casually to tout a part-time Legislature last month as a way to stop wasting time on “strange bills.” Last week, former California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) seriously endorsed the same idea in a speech.

So far political scientists haven’t proven a connection between enactment of strange laws and legislators spending more time under the capitol dome. But serious differences exist between part-time and full-time legislatures including salary level, staff size, length of session, time in the home district and conflicts of interest when lawmakers are forced to have outside jobs.

Part-time legislatures also called traditional or citizen legislatures – have shorter sessions, employ small staffs, and pay lawmakers an average salary of $15,984, necessitating outside income, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Among the lowest paid are part-time lawmakers in New Hampshire, $100 a year; South Dakota, $6,000 a year; and Rhode Island, $11,236 a year, according to NCSL’s compensation table. Some states also cover daily expenses, and some only pay a certain amount for each day in session.

Only California, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania have full-time legislatures, meaning they require the most time of their elected statesmen, have large personal staffs and pay an average $68,599 — enough to make a living without outside income.

California lawmakers, best-paid in the nation, earn $99,000 a year. Voters approved a full-time schedule in 1966.

Wilson, California’s former governor, told a state Chamber of Commerce audience last week that he doubts he can persuade the Legislature to convert to part-time. “But I think the public is ready,” he said, according to an Associated Press account. “When you have a part-time legislature, they are by necessity required to concentrate on the most important issues. I think we would see many fewer bills. We would see far less spending.”

Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said California lawmakers should keep their high salary but cut the legislative session to six months to save money on the daily reimbursements paid to defray living expenses and the price of maintaining a second residence.

“They waste a lot of time, sitting around, waiting for bills to be heard, waiting for the budget. California is a huge state, and they rarely get back to their district except on the weekends. They’re very invisible,” Stern said.

Legislatures in six states – Arkansas, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon and Texas convene in regular session only every other year.

Seven states – Alaska, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Wisconsin – have systems in which members spend the equivalent of 80 percent of a full-time job working on state business. More than 20 states have legislators who typically spend equal to two-thirds of a workday on official business, NCSL said. The remainder including legislators in Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming – work on state issues less than half of a normal work schedule and employ small staffs.

A South Dakota study scheduled for this summer will examine whether to alter its state’s schedule, increase legislative power relative to the governor, or continue its “amateur, citizen-band Legislature,” said Michael Card, a professor of state and local government at the University of South Dakota. South Dakota’s Legislature meets in winter months because its original citizen lawmakers were farmers who could get away more in colder months, Card said.

Some advocates of full-time legislatures say they keep a governor’s power in check. But one academic study suggests that, contrary to popular belief, governors’ chances of pushing through an agenda are better if legislators work full-time, said Margaret Ferguson, an Indiana University political science professor.

South Dakota Sen. Ed Olson, R-Mitchell, juggles a second job as a hospital foundation director. He said holding two jobs naturally leads to more conflicts of interest, and he once wrestled over abstaining from a vote on a pricing plan for pharmacy benefit managers that would have impacted his work.

“I was criticized for walking, or excusing myself, and I was also congratulated for what I did,” said Olson, who serves on the Health and Human Services Committee and represents an area 75 miles west of Sioux Falls.

Leah Rush, director of state projects for the Center for Public Integrity, said research shows that conflicts aren’t less likely in full-time legislatures. The center examined the ethics, conflict-of-interest laws and financial-disclosure requirements covering more than 7,300 state lawmakers in 1999 and will update its research with an analysis of disclosure laws next month.

Rush said she currently is studying cases of Alabama lawmakers who bring their business interests to the legislative floor. For example, a small business owner offered a bill last year to exempt companies with fewer than 35 employees from having to create non-smoking areas.

“Even before the dinners, trips and campaign contributions that lobbyists add to the mix, lawmakers arrive in Montgomery (Ala.) already part of specific interest groups. Because they work for them,” the Huntsville Times reported.

Harvey Tucker, political scientist at Texas A&M University, said his students conducted a study that showed Texas lawmakers were more likely to introduce bills related to their occupations.

Texas legislators, now in special session, spend the equivalent of two-thirds of a full-time job being lawmakers. Many have an intermediate-sized staff and maintain other jobs.

The Texas Legislature is part-time even though the enormous state has an economy that ranks eighth in the world, surpassing that of Russia, Canada and Argentina, according to the Gross National Product Statistics from the World Bank Atlas for 2000. “It’s just totally strange,” Tucker said.

Brian Weberg, NCSL’s director of legislative management program, said: “It’s hard to be black and white about discussing state legislatures. Each state has adopted aspects of professionalism and modernization for their needs.”

The trend is that the job of a lawmaker is becoming bigger, Weberg said. Anecdotal evidence suggests a legislator’s workload has become overwhelming even in part-time legislatures, while the pressure also is on lawmakers to maintain a family life and a second job, Weberg said.

Jeff Gombosky, now Eastern Washington University’s lobbyist, quit the part-time Washington Legislature last year because his personal finances were on a roller coaster while he served as the head of the House Finance Committee. Gombosky, D-Spokane, also wanted to spend more time with his 5- and 3-year-old children, who were living 320 miles from the capital.

“It gets to be pretty taxing and daunting at times. This year there’s almost 20 percent turnover in the statehouse. Many are leaving for the same reasons,” Gombosky said. 

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