Over at Metropolis, Tom Ferrick writes about the recent grand jury report recommending sweeping changes in state government. He mostly agrees with the report, but takes issue with one idea: turning the legislature into a part-time body that only meets a few months out of the year.
I don't think you can roll back the clock in that way. State government is too big and complex to strip the legislature of its support staff and have it meet only a few months a year.
That's an interesting point. Many people, especially in the media, seem to think the need for reform is so urgent that almost any radical idea will help. But if we're seriously thinking about switching to a part-time legislature, it's important to consider all the consequences.
The National Conference of State Legislatures has a helpful guide to the issue. Of course, this is essentially a professional association, so they aren't exactly unbiased. However, they do make an interesting point about the function of a legislature.
NCSL prefers to look more broadly at the capacity of legislatures to function as independent branches of government, capable of balancing the power of the executive branch and having the information necessary to make independent, informed policy decisions. To measure the capacity of legislatures, it's important to consider the amount of time legislators spend on the job, the amount they are compensated and the size of the legislature's staff.
The site divides legislatures across the country into three categories: red, white, and blue. The red states have full-time legislatures, whites are a hybrid, and blues have truly part-time legislatures.
Based on the NCSL analysis, Pennsylvania is one of just four states with a full-time legislature. Most states have some kind of hybrid, with just a small number of states having truly part-time lawmakers. However, there are some interesting differences between the states with full-time legislatures and part-time legislatures.
All of the states with a full-time legislature have large populations and complex economies. In contrast, the part-time legislatures are all rural states with a very small number of people. That seems to back up Ferrick's thesis that a part-time legislature wouldn't work in Pennsylvania.
Still, it seems like the hybrid option could work. States in this category are just as populous as Pennsylvania and have somewhat similar economies. This would also be less radical than shifting to a truly part-time legislature, which might face less resistance.