Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Keep the Legislative Session Short

LaVarr Webb praises the Utah Legislature (here – scroll down to Utah Legislature Gets the Job Done) for efficiently and effectively completing its work in 45 calendar days (33 working days). Calling the legislative session “an annual miracle,” Webb explains, “The Utah legislative system works only because of extensive planning, good interim committee work, excellent staff support, and a willingness by lawmakers to be disciplined and recognize time limitations.”

I have several acquaintances that were quite surprised upon being elected to the legislature to discover the amount of legislative work they needed to do outside of the regular sessions. It truly becomes a labor of love. Those that can’t stand the heat soon get out of the kitchen.

You might despise the results of the legislature’s work, but you cannot deny Webb’s assertion of how well it works. He suggests that Congress should use Utah’s legislature as a model for its own work. That’s not a bad idea. But Utah’s legislature is also a good model for other states.

California’s assembly, on the other hand, is a model for states to avoid. One can argue that California’s assembly deals with more complexity than Utah’s legislature due to the state’s large size and population, but that begs the point. Studies have shown that states with full-time legislatures have higher per-person cost of government, higher taxes, and more intrusive government than states with part-time legislatures.

Before Gov. Schwarznegger’s recent political problems, he was considering an attempt to make California’s assembly a part-time operation (see here). He argued that strange legislation resulted from lawmakers having too much time on their hands and spending too much time listening to lobbyists instead of their constituents.

Part-time legislators are generally not professional politicians. They are involved in their own businesses and communities. While they have input from lobbyists, they can somewhat escape political groupthink by spending so much time away from the legislature.

Of course, there are arguments against part-time legislatures as well. Only people that can afford to spend 45 days away from their regular jobs/businesses can think about running for office. That excludes a huge portion of our society. But it is another argument in favor of keeping the legislative session as short as possible. California had a 120-day session before it went full-time, making it a much more exclusive club than Utah’s.

In the days before high-speed travel and communication, Congress was also a part-time legislative body. Its members spent more time at home than inside the DC beltway. Today its members occasionally venture outside of the beltway to make trips to the states and districts they represent. Is it any surprise that national legislation is more impacted by the DC lobbying industry than by the people back home?

You can argue that you don’t like the (almost) single-party makeup of the Utah Legislature, but Webb is correct in noting the legislature’s efficiency. We should work to preserve our short legislative session and maintain the part-time status of our state representatives and senators. It makes for good government.

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