The Much-Smarter-than-Unicameral Legislative Reform Plan

Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Patrick Lynch mentioned the idea of moving to a unicameral legislature in Rhode Island during last Thursday’s gubernatorial debate. He’s even tweeted about it…

RI government needs to change the way we do biz. It takes a total overhaul. Let’s start with unicameral legislature
But if we are going to discuss a large-scale overhaul of the structure of state-government, I’ve got a much better reform plan, one that can garner support from those enamored by the idea of a full-time legislature as well as from those who believe that increasing the accountability of Rhode Island’s elected representatives is sorely necessary. (Though, in the spirit of truth-in-advertising, I have to say that there’s nothing in this for those who believe in the boneheaded idea that creating a unicameral legislature will be an improvement over what we have now).
For those who think a full-time legislature is the answer to Rhode Island’s governance problems, we will invoke the spirit of Federalist 62, and make the Senate full time, with Senators serving three-year terms, with 1/3 up for election every year the same way 1/3 of the Federal Senate stands for election every two years. Now Rhode Island will have a body of professional legislators that in theory can devote more time and energy to deliberating and crafting legislation. (My mention of this theory does not mean that I necessarily believe that this is necessarily how things would really turn out, nor that it is my opinion that not having a full-time legislature is a significant problem for RI. I’m compromising with the full-time legislature advocates here).
However, to address the problems of a further diverging of interests between the people and the governing class that a full-time Senate would almost certainly exacerbate, we will compensate by providing more opportunities for the popular will to discipline the House of Representatives, by having all representatives stand for election on an annual basis, enhancing what is supposed to be a tradition of the House of Representatives being the province of true citizen-legislators, and avoiding the creation of a legislative system where the passage of laws may depend solely upon legislators whose entire livelihood depends on pleasing the special interests that help get them elected.
As an added bonus, there will be elections held in the odd-numbered years under this system, breaking the link between Federal and state elections and creating a series of electoral choices where state issues will be the issues of broadest scope on the Rhode Island ballot.
Finally, we can add another set of changes addressing Rhode Island’s specific problems of legislation being passed in dark-of-night marathon sessions, without either adequate deliberation between members or information about what is about to become law being shared with the public. If the leadership wants to introduce a bill, hold its committee hearings, change the original bill through amendments and put the result to a floor vote all in the same week, a 2/3 majority will be required to pass the House. In fact, a 2/3 requirement will be applied to any bill introduced for the first time to the Senate and the House in the same session. However, if a bill first passes the Senate at least three-weeks prior to a general election, thereby providing the people with an opportunity to vote for or against their reps based on positions on pending Senate bills, a bill can then be passed in the next session by a simple majority of the House. And at the other end of the calendar, since we will be requiring the House to adjourn by June 30 each year, Senate floor action between the months of July and December sending a bill to the governor will only be possible on bills that have already passed the House earlier in the session, with no last-minute, vote on this 5-minutes after you’ve seen it amendments possible.
This is a straightforward and simple set of changes that restores meaning to having two separate legislative houses, and that strengthens the mechanism of accountability of representatives to their constituents, all while preserving the representative nature of democracy in state government. It wouldn’t take a whole lot changes to the Rhode Island state Constitution to implement all of this. An example of how specific amendments could be written is below the fold…

Proposed Changes to the Rhode Island Constitution, to Utilize Bicameralism in Service of Better Government
Adjust Article VI, section 1, to replace the current provisions for electing the legislature with…

Elections for senators and representatives in the general assembly shall be held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
Representatives shall be elected annually, and shall severally hold their offices for one (1) year from the first Tuesday of January next succeeding their election and until their successors are elected and qualified.
Immediately after Senators shall be assembled in Consequence of the first Election under this section, they shall be divided as equally as may be into three Classes. The Seats of the Senators of the first Class shall be vacated at the Expiration of the first Year, of the second Class at the Expiration of the second Year, and of the third Class at the Expiration of the third Year, so that one-third may be chosen by election every Year. Senators chosen in any election following division into three classes shall hold their offices for three (3) years from the first Tuesday of January next succeeding their election and until their successors are elected and qualified.
Add article VII section 3…
The assent of a simple majority of a quorum of Senators shall fulfill the requirement for Senate concurrence established by Article VI section 2 of this Constitution, for passage of any bill into law, with exceptions as specified in Article VI section 11, Article IX section 14, and Article XI section 2.

Add article VIII section 3…
The assent of two-thirds of a quorum of the the House of Representatives shall fulfill the requirement for House of Representatives concurrence established by Article VI section 2 of this Constitution, for passage of any bill into law, with exceptions as specified in Article IX section 14 and Article XI section 1, and with the exception that the assent of a simple majority of a quorum of House members shall fulfill the requirement for concurrence established in Article VI section 2, in the case of any bill not subject to Article VI section 11 that is identically worded to a bill that was passed by the Senate in the previous year between the date of the day following the previous year’s House of Representative’s adjournment and the date twenty-one (21) calendar days prior to the previous year’s general election, inclusive; this exception shall not eliminate the requirement that identically worded bills be passed in the same session, by both the House and Senate, in order to fulfill the requirement for concurrence established by Article VI section 2.
Adjust Article VI, Section 3, for the existence of a full-time senate and part-time house
There shall be a session of the general assembly at Providence commencing on the first Tuesday of January in each year. The session of the House of Representatives shall adjourn on or before June 30 of the year…
This is also where the full-time compensation of Senators would be implemented. Also, adjust Article VI section 9 regarding concurrent adjournment.

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11 years ago

I would invite anybody supporting the idea of a full-time legislature to live in Massachusetts for a year and witness:
– A wealthy class of Democratic machine political insiders, occupying their seats for 3 decades at a time.
– Gerry-mandering of districts to retain absolute power
– Rampant corruption, on par with or exceeding RI
– Police and Fire Unions owning the state legislature lock, stock, and barrel, beyond anything of which RI unions could ever dream (200k-250k salaries).
– Reactionary nanny-state laws and regulations that control every aspect of private lives.
RI may be bed-ridden with a part-time legislature, but it will not survive a full-time legislature. That will truly be the finishing blow. Massachusetts is only hanging on because of its historical roots in higher education (117 colleges in the Boston area) and high culture, neither of which RI can claim anywhere near the same level.
The solution is exactly the opposite: the New Hampshire model. A very large body of basically volunteer legislators ($100/year) who all hold real full-time jobs and come from small, easily-canvassed districts. Corruption is practically a non-issue there, and representatives are actually held accountable by their constituents.

11 years ago

Please, please, let’s not move toward a full-time legislature. What we need is for these guys and gals to spend LESS time – not more – at the helm.
Instead of moving toward Massachusetts, why not look to Texas, where the legislature meets every other year.
Interestingly, out of all of the 50 states, Texas is home to the constitutionally weakest executive branch. Allowing the legislature in session only once every two years, serves as an inherent check and balance to the prevent that state’s lawmakers from steamrolling over the governor’s office.
Rhode Island? We have the second-weakest executive branch in the country, and one of the strongest legislatures.
Time for a change. Time to send ’em home for 12 months.

11 years ago

Texas… New Hampshire… just pick any state other than Massachusetts to emulate.
It is incomprehensible to me why small-government enthusiasts who are fed up with a legislature that attracts self-interested individuals or nanny-staters think that making the positions full-time, well-paid, prestigious stepping-stone jobs would alleviate that problem rather than exacerbate it (which has been the direct result where it has already been tried).
Imagine you were a nanny-stater or a unionist – would you be more likely to run for a lush full-time stepping-stone legislative position for which your everyday job was to sit around and dream up brand new laws and regulations all day, being expected to fix every single problem in the state through legislation no matter how small, or would you be more likely to run as a volunteer non-prestigious representative of relatively few people in a body that seldom meets on a limited number of issues. Believe somebody who lived in Massachusetts for 4 years – the public unions LOVE a full-time legislature.

11 years ago

“What happens in the Texas system when there’s a revenue shortfall, midway through the two-year budget cycle?”
Probably the same thing they do in RI. Nothing.

11 years ago

During periods where revenue shortfalls may be experienced, the legislature may be called back for a special session. In good years, this wouldn’t happen. In poor economic times, it could either happen regularly, or, hopefully elected officials would plan to spend the state’s money more conservatively and not rely on windfall revenue streams or one-time fixes like we have been doing for years.

11 years ago

Sure enough – fresh post up over at RIFuture unequivocally supporting the idea of a full-time legislature:
“And, finally, a professional legislature: face it, a part-time, half-salary legislature makes it difficult for working class folks to run for office. If you make a living cleaning hotel rooms, how are you going to take off at 2:00 PM every day for months on end to act as a state rep or senator? We’ve got big problems that require the attention of professional legislators. Let’s cut House and Senate districts to, say, 40 and 25 each and raise salaries akin to the average teacher’s pay in the state of Rhode Island. That has the added bonus of forcing legislators to have empathy with our state’s teachers – not a bad goal in its own right!”
A full-time legislature is the progressive and union dream choice. As bad as things are now, a full-time legislature makes it far easier for them to buy their candidates and keep them in power indefinitely. It also expands the functions of government and encourages interventionist policies simply by the very nature of it (what are they going to do, sit around all day if there are no laws worth passing?)
If you are for limited government and fiscal responsibility, supporting any kind of full-time legislature is a huge blunder.

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