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In Midwest, states split on whether legislating should be part- or full-time

by Laura Tomaka ~ July/August 2014 ~ Stateline Midwest »
In Michigan, the state’s legislators meet year-round, earn among the highest legislative salaries in the nation, and get support from a staff of more than 700 people. For a time earlier this year, some inside the Capitol wondered if that might all soon change.
A petition drive to make Michigan a part-time legislature — with much lower staffing levels and legislative pay, along with session days limited to 60 days per year — was being pushed with plans to put it on the ballot later this year.
That drive has since stalled, though supporters of the change have vowed to continue to seek wider support statewide. And the recent activity in Michigan begs the question: Is one model, part-time legislature or full-time legislature, better than the other?
According to Gary Moncrief, a Boise State University political science professor and expert on state legislatures, it all depends.
“States with complex economies and large, diverse populations develop more-complex problems that require a great deal more information and policy development, which are the hallmarks of a full-time legislature,” he says. “On the other hand, I do not believe that all states require a full-time legislature — far from it.”
The Midwest is currently split.
Four states — Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin — are classified as having “full-time legislatures” based on three principal factors: higher salaries for legislators, sessions that run for all or most of the year, and large staffing levels. Indiana, Kansas, North Dakota and South Dakota are among the 17 U.S. states still operating under part-time legislatures. Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska have what are considered “hybrid” legislatures.
The arguments being made for a change in Michigan reflect those often heard across the country in favor of part-time, “citizen” legislatures: cost-savings through smaller legislative budgets, for example, and the advantage of having lawmakers who spend more time in their districts and who are not “career politicians.”
Michigan Rep. Amanda Price adds that the effort in her state has been fueled by groups of people “who believe that a full-time legislature has led to over-regulation and over-taxation of citizens in Michigan.”
“The thought of a part-time legislature may be attractive to some in that it could save tax dollars or reduce the size of government,” Price says. “However, it is important to point out that the bureaucracy would remain in place without as much oversight from elected representatives who can voice people’s concerns.”
Moncrief agrees.
“I have never understood why some legislators want to weaken the legislative institution — which is certainly closer to ‘the people’ than the executive or the judicial institutions,” he says. “Weakening the legislature simply makes the executive branch relatively stronger, and I imagine it makes interest groups relatively stronger as well.”
Supporters of full-time legislatures say a state benefits from having elected officials with the time and means to devote to the business of lawmaking, and who are less likely to have conflicts of interest stemming from outside jobs.
Moncrief notes, too, that a change in Michigan would be especially challenging because of the state’s very restrictive law on term limits — two three-year terms in the House and two four-year terms in the Senate, with bans on ever returning to the Legislature.
“The evidence is pretty clear that state legislatures with term limits have lost influence vis-à-vis the executive branch,” he says. “To further weaken the institution by ‘de-professionalizing’ [less staff, for example] seems dangerous to me.”
In his most recent book, “Why States Matter,” Moncrief and co-author Peverill Squire argue that gridlock in Washington, D.C., is shifting more power and responsibilities to the states, with legislatures being given more freedom to innovate and more latitude to exert their own policy preferences.
“If that is true, why would we want to be weakening the policy capacity of legislatures?” Moncrief asks. “I think we should be making state legislatures more capable, not less so.

 

Capital Closeup is a regular series of articles produced by CSG Midwest that highlights institutional issues in state governments.