Proposal for part-time Legislature lingers

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Capital News Service
LANSING – In a continuing effort to cut the state’s deficit, conservative members of both houses are suggesting one thing: a smaller government.
Although Senate Republicans recently unveiled a plan that they say would cut costs by up to $2 billion through reducing state employee salaries and cutting benefits, down-sizing proposals are by no means new to the Legislature.
However, much like a predecessor plan, an amendment to the state’s constitution would be necessary to convert the Legislature to a part-time entity.
Former Rep. Brian Palmer, R-Romeo, introduced a joint resolution to the House in 2007 advocating a part-time legislature, also known as a “citizen legislature.”
Palmer served in the House from 2002 to 2008 until he was term-limited.
His proposal would also have capped the legislative budget and eliminated all legislative reimbursements except for out-of-pocket costs, like gas money for trips between members’ districts and the Capitol.
The failed proposal also would have restricted the days the Legislature met to 60 a year, and lawmakers would have been paid on a per-day basis.
Citizen legislature proposals have not gone without criticism.
Among the concerns are who would be able to afford to serve as a part-time official, the impact of interest groups on the newcomers and their compressed calendar; and whether novice politicians would be able to handle the pressures of keeping the state running efficiently.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), 17 states have a part-time legislature, 10 have a full-time legislature and the remaining 23 fall in between with a “hybrid” sort of government.
NCSL also noted that part-time legislatures are more prevalent in rural, small-population states. For instance, New Hampshire, Utah, Indiana, Georgia, West Virginia and Vermont are among states with part-time bodies. Conversely, California, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Florida are among states with full-time legislatures.
Brenda Erickson, a program principal in the NCSL Legislative Management Program in Dever, said there are three core differences between full-time and part-time legislatures: time on the job, compensation and staff per member. For example, while full-time lawmakers spend about 80 percent of their time on the job, part-timers spend only 54 percent.
Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics and a former Republican state representative and senator, said that the actual conversion from full to part-time isn’t the reason the issue has lingered in Lansing for a decade or two. Lawmakers won’t, on their own, limit themselves, he said.
“The only way you can force them to meet the way they used to is to somehow pass a constitutional amendment or something that will force them to do what they’re supposed to do,“ Ballenger said. He cited Michigan’s non-full-time Legislature before changes in the state constitution in 1963.
But Ballenger – and other experts – argue that the change would be difficult with a Democratic House and Republican Senate.
To complicate the situation, a constitutional amendment would require not only the agreement of both houses, but perhaps most importantly, the green light from voters – a problem which California is grappling with as it considers switching to a part-time legislature.
Although there are no pending proposals to convert the Legislature, legislation to modify salaries or eliminate health care and retirement benefits have been introduced.
For example, Reps. Dian Slavens, D-Canton, Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, and Tom McMillin, R-Rochester proposed changes to retirement and health care benefits, and Rep. Paul Opsommer, R-DeWitt sponsored a resolution to modify salaries.
None have found their way out of the Committee on Government Operations since their introduction.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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