Does Louisiana really need a full-time legislature?

By: Jim Brown

When the Speaker of the House of Representatives took the microphone last week in support of a 300 percent pay raise for legislators in Louisiana, one of his arguments was the job had become full time.

“It is a misconception that this is a part-time job,” he told his colleagues. So the question is simply this. Should Louisiana, or for that matter any state, have a full-time state legislature? I say no.

The list of reasons is long, particularly in Louisiana. But let’s simply start with a clear prohibition that exists under the state’s constitution. Article X, Section 29.1 says indubitably: …”The following elected…officials are hereby deemed to be part-time public servants…: (1) Any legislator.” You can not get more clarity than that.

So should the Constitution be changed? After all, say some legislators, they have a long list of problems to deal with, and the post Katrina and Rita recovery seems to keep them busy around-the-clock. And they often make the point that other states have full-time legislatures, so Louisiana needs to follow suit if it’s going to be progressive and bring the state fully into the 21st century.

Actually, there are only four states that presently have full-time legislatures, California, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania. And in each of these states, there is a major push to revert back to part-time lawmakers.

Our next-door neighbors in Texas meet once every two years, and there is no major push to change. Texas Gov. Rick Perry observes: “There are people who always think, ‘Let’s have a full-time legislature.’ I happen to think that’s just asking for trouble. When you have a full-time legislature, they just feel pretty inclined to be doing something. So they are going to dream up new laws, new regulations and new statutes — and generally all of those cost money,” Perry says.

Historically, America’s founding fathers were distrustful of people seeking political power. “Whenever a man has a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct,” observed Thomas Jefferson. The future president’s view was that those elected should be temporary public servants, using common sense to serve for a short time, then return to live and work with their neighbors under the regulations they had enacted.

I remember a few years ago listening to a lecture by Ed Meese, the former attorney general to President Ronald Reagan. He said Reagan had concluded that he had made a big mistake in supporting the full-time legislature when he first ran for governor back in 1966. Present California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger agrees with Reagan, and feels California should return to a part-time legislature. “Spending so much time at the state Capitol, these legislators come out with strange bills. I like them when they are scrambling and they really have to work hard. Give them a short part of time. Then good work gets done, rather than hanging. That’s when they start getting creative with things.”

(I wonder how the California governor would react to a whole list of new laws passed by the current Louisiana legislature, including making the Sazerac the official state cocktail?)

So ignoring present constitutional prohibitions, what are the arguments being made to give the current legislature a 300 percent raise, and have them spend a lot more time at the state Capitol in Baton Rouge?

We hear about the huge growth in the state budget, now more than $30 billion, and therefore many more working hours are involved by legislators in reviewing spending priorities. But in actuality, much of the money to be appropriated has been dedicated. Almost one-third of the present budget comes from federal funds, much of it related to Katrina and Rita recovery. More than half of the overall budget has been locked in by the legislature to spend on specific purposes like highways. So in actuality, there has not been that much growth to oversee.

We also hear about the need for new legislation to “keep up” with other states. But realistically, why is it so important to propose a litany of new legislation? Are there any new laws out there the state really needs? The major problems facing Louisiana today are in the areas of education, health care, job development and affordable insurance. And virtually every new program can be put in place by the executive branch under present Louisiana law. It would be hard to point to any newly-passed law during this current legislative session that really is deemed to be necessary to solve some immediate problem.

Many feel the legislature should act as the Board of Directors, reviewing the budgets of various state agencies, and building in performance quotients to see that services are performed with it effectively and efficiently. But isn’t that the same job undertaken by boards of directors of many of the countries large corporations that often deal with a much bigger budget than Louisiana’s? Such boards meet monthly, and are certainly not full time.

If lawmakers are going to follow the spirit of the Constitution and be responsive to the needs of the majority of citizens in Louisiana, they will serve best by coming to the state capital for several months a year. Then return to their community and spend the next 10 months working and living under laws they have created. There is an ivory tower around the state capital, and a legislator’s self-importance grows and becomes infectious. Being back home on a regular basis, over most of the year, is the best way to share an open perspective, and obtain a sense of balance of what it will take to move the state forward in the years to come.

Simply put, if current members of the legislature, in their wisdom, feel like they have undertaken a full-time job, then that in itself may be the problem. If they quickly shut things down in Baton Rouge and come back home to the real world, perhaps a little common sense will prevail when it comes to major salary increases, and passing new laws that when you get right down to it, are really not that necessary.

After the pay raise fiasco, a large number of voters feel their new legislature is out of touch. It will continue to be viewed in this light if legislators maintain the position that their only paycheck should come from the state capitol. Voters just aren’t buying it.

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