A Full-Time General Assembly

In this week’s Valley Breeze, frequent columnist Arlene Violet wrote that she is now a convert and a support of a full-time General Assembly in Rhode Island.

This sorry state of affairs has led me to reverse my long-term opposition to a full-time legislature. Now I think that we need to make that change so we can have a citizen body. Here’s the why and the how.
The present General Assembly is loaded with union folks who do their master’s bidding. Actual union leaders, along with teachers, firefighters, and policemen, pack the assembly halls. Taxpayers shell out money for their substitutes on days they report to work on Smith Hill at times that are inconsistent with their full-time jobs. This is pretty ridiculous. It allows a situation where they can have their cake and eat it, an option no other working stiff has. (Municipalities should cease including such a provision in collective bargaining agreements).
Similarly, the part-time nature of the legislative jobs allows attorneys to pack the place as well. Insurance guys generally also have a contingent at the Statehouse. Legislation that pads their daytime pockets is no accident.

I agree with her reasoning but disagree with her solution. I think what she suggests could force the Assembly to go in the other direction and cause people to be more corruptible and be more-self-serving. Her employment terms would include:

The legislative members should serve full-time with the month of July off as a vacation. Pay them $35,000-$40,000 a year to work 9 a.m.-5 p.m. from Tuesday through Saturday (so average people can approach their legislators on a day they aren’t at work). Health care benefits should be offered. A 401K program should be in place. And here’s an important feature: Anyone already receiving a public pension from the state or municipality either must not collect it or be ineligible to serve.

Let me ask you this, do you want someone who is willing to do a full time job for $40,000 making the laws in this state and making decisions for you? Who would give up their job as a teacher making upwards of $70,000 a year and a few months a year off for $40,000 and one month off? Or a lawyer possibly making a six-figure salary? Would these people switch jobs? Of course not, and I get it, that’s her point. But who would run for office under this scenario? Probably not the “best and brightest”, which is not a situation that we really need.
If the answer is that it shouldn’t be about the money anyway and it should be about the desire to serve, then I agree totally, and let’s go in that direction. If we are going to make a major reform to the structure of the General Assembly, let’s go in the opposite direction from what Arlene suggests. Here’s what I would like to see happen.
First, zero compensation. If it really is about the “service”, then let’s truly make these people be public servants. Also, notice I wrote “compensation” and not just “pay.” There will be zero salary but there will also be zero health insurance and no retirement money, not that there is any pension for legislators now. New Hampshire gets away with paying their legislators $100 a year. So apparently that works.
Ok, so with no compensation, how will people be able to be there and serve either full-time or even with keeping it at its current schedule, the 4 pm bell time? Let’s change that too. If you’ve ever experienced some days at the General Assembly, you’ve seen that they’ll open at 4 pm and sometimes close as early as 4:30 pm, and then either head off to some committee hearings or head home. I’d push that back to a 6 pm start time. Now virtually anyone with a first-shift job can finish their normal work day and head to Providence for the Assembly sessions.
One other change that I’d like to see that actually works in another state, Texas, is to only have the Assembly meet every other year. It seems that in election years, they’re very concerned with getting their work done, getting out and back on the campaign trail. Ok, I’m willing to help them with that. The change I’d make here is they are elected in November, start the Assembly session the following January, go as long as they need to, even if that means going into, *gasp*, July, and then when they’re done, that’s it. They sit out the following year as they get the whole year unimpeded to run for re-election.
In a state the size of RI, why do we need the Assembly to meet every year and put in all kinds of crazy bills and create new crazy laws, when a state the size of Texas doesn’t need an annual legislature? It seems to work fine there, I’ll take it here.
That’s about it for now, but if any more evidence is needed of how a full-time Assembly does nothing to cut down on corruption, look no further than our neighbor to the north. Citing from the great internet source known as Wikipedia, here are their recent political convicts:
-Massachusetts Speaker of the House Salvatore DiMasi (D) was found guilty of using his position to secure multimillion-dollar state contracts for a software company in exchange for kickbacks.(2011)
-Massachusetts, Boston Councillor Chuck Turner (D) was expelled from the Boston City Council on December 1, 2010 following his conviction on federal bribery charges
-Massachusetts Speaker of the House Thomas Finneran (D) pled guilty to one count of obstruction of justice and received 18 months probation.(2004)
-Massachusetts State Senator Dianne Wilkerson (D-MA) was video taped by the FBI stuffing bribe money into her bra. Charged with tax evasion (1997), ethics violations (2001) and perjury (2005)
-Massachusetts Speaker of the House Charles Flaherty (D-MA) pled guilty to felony tax evasion for submitting false receipts regarding his business expenses and to violations of the state conflict of interests law.(1996)
Massachusetts state representative Nicholas Mavroules (D-MA) pleaded guilty to bribery charges. Mavroules was a US Representative, not a MA state rep. h/t Bill Rappleye
To me, that says that if anything, more power can lead to more corruption. I searched the same Wikipedia list for corrupt NH legislators and found none. One arrested for DUI, but certainly not the rogue’s gallery we see up in Mass.
That’s my opinion. If we’re going to make a radical change to the Assembly, let’s go unpaid, every other year and have them start later in the day. Sounds like a better combination to me.

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Ken Block
10 years ago

The answer is a much shorter session – at maximum 3 or 4 months. Start the session in Feb. or March and end it by the end of June. A 3 month session will net us a lot more gainfully employed folks willing to serve.

10 years ago

All the full-time legislature accomplishes in Massachusetts is additional laws each year to justify their full-time presence and compensation and the seats being all-the-more coveted as status symbols and an insider lifestyle by powerful special interest groups and families. Three consecutive Federally-convicted house speakers is not a record that Rhode Island should be trying to replicate, nor should having entrenched, well-connected legislators who sit in the same seats for decades and decades, racking up huge pensions. As anyone who has lived in Massachusetts can tell you, the argument that full-time legislatures solve these issues is total nonsense – it only exacerbates the problems in practice. If you need any more persuasion on the issue, take a gander at RIFuture’s stance. Progressives LOVE well-compensated, full-time legislatures. New Hampshire and its volunteer legislature should be the model – take the money and status out of the equation (and greatly increase the number of seats while you’re at it) and normal, unconnected people who genuinely care about the public are more likely to run.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
10 years ago

NH seems to do pretty well with a 1-2 month session and salary of $500.00 (could be a little more now).
Full time legislatures are always looking for something to do so that they can report “we did this for you” or, “we did that for you”. Maybe if they just left us alone?
Massachusetts legislators also pull about $90K. This is seldom spoken of, extra pay for being on a committee, extra pay for heading a committee, travel money (each day they are in session), etc., etc. Of course, the caligraphers that do the place tags at White House dinners make $96K, so who’s to complain about the legislators?

10 years ago

Warrington – However wasteful state spending may be, the states will always be “small time” compared with the Federal government. The problem is that the Federal government has become highly skilled at justifying everything on paper and the procedures are complicated and opaque, so only those who work in an agency for years will understand the true extent of the waste and overcompensation that goes on there, and by that time they have been bought off by the system so the incentives are not to report it. It’s so far away and far removed to most taxpayers, to boot, that scrutiny and oversight are essentially nonexistent. $96k is chump change for a Federal employee – everyone with a pulse gets GS-13 before age 45, and top step at that grade is $116k plus bonuses, awards, loan repayments, and subsidies.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
10 years ago

Dan, I was offered a job at State when I got out of law school. I was suspicious of the motives behind the guy offering me a job, so I passed. I have sometimes wondered. “would I have become a drone”? Sometime later, I was offered a look through the “plum book”. I should have paid more attention to that. Talk about sinecurea.

Rich Rostrom
Rich Rostrom
10 years ago

Full time legislators are the opposite of “citizen legislators”.
We have full-time legislators here in Illinois. Nearly all of them are pure professional politicians, who do nothing else their whole lives. Lavish pay and generous pensions, which most of them “top up” by getting other state employment for brief periods. (That’s not counting those who go to prison.)
Part-time legislators can have day jobs; if compensation and benefits are held down, they have to have day jobs, and remain in touch with the real world.

10 years ago

Mr. Block is exactly right. The solution is a true part-time citizen legislature. It should be limited to only a couple of months out of the year and only during the evening, when the work day is over. Arlene Violet has fallen into the expansion of government trap. The solution is less government, not a full-time legislature working to create more government.

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