Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Part-time Wisco Legislature

Jim Leverance in the WSJ on the need for a part-time state legislature:

The advantages of a part-time Legislature are many. It would allow more people an opportunity to serve their state. Short legislative sessions would force legislators to deal with the pressing issues. Short sessions would provide an opportunity for those with other jobs -- and more important, those interested in dealing with the issues -- to serve.

We could get better representation reflecting a cross section of state residents. Farmers, people with business backgrounds, sales people and all others could be elected. With a shorter legislative session, they would be willing to invest some time in making our state a better place.

The Legislature would become a body with a broader cross section of people truly interested in taking on important issues, not merely interested in being re-elected.

I'm not so sure a part-time legislature would mean a sudden (or even gradual) increase in occupational diversity. One of the unintended consequences of going part-time might be that potential candidates may decline the choice to run because their first profession isn't exactly conducive for part-time work and it's a lot harder to hold two part-time gigs than it is to hold one full-time job.

Plus, a lot of legislators take pay cuts when they run for office and if the legislature were to go part-time I doubt there would be an increase in the hourly pay elected officials receive for their services. So instead of opening up the legislature up to people of all kinds of employments, the move might actually make government more restrictive to the people who hold jobs that pay well enough to allow them to do a little legislative moonlighting on the side.

Not that I think this will be a pressing problem any time soon. A group might be able to get together and pressure elected members to go with a part-time legislature, but then you'll have to deal with the full-time lobbyists who could conceivably see their retainers cut in half. I doubt that would go over very well.

I bet if you polled on this issue it would be immensely popular if phrased in the form of a "do you support or not support" question, but if you asked someone to rank it in terms of legislative priorities it would be pretty low on a list. Sure, people like the idea, but there's little reason to think they're very passionate about it. Even if a part-time legislature did get passed, the next time there's a budget impasse legislators will have a fool-proof excuse to give their constituents: we have day jobs just like everyone else!

If the state wants a part-time legislature, we should do it for a comprehensive set of reasons, not just because this year a sharply divided Assembly and Senate, each held by a different party, are having a tough time getting their shit together. That's to be expected.

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