It's Time to Grow Up: Fast-Growing Western States Need Full-Time Legislators
I'd have to say that I agree with this blog from State Sen. Howard Stephenson: special sessions are little more than political grandstanding, calling every pet project an imminent crisis that just can't wait for the next session in two years. The problem, however, is that we have a 19th century meeting schedule in a 21st century world.
I understand the rationale behind bi-annual meetings of the legislature: give them a limited amount of time and they can only do a limited amount of damage. Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain) had it right when he declared that a man's wallet was in its greatest peril when the legislature was in session. If he'd seen the carnage of Nevada's 2003 special sessions to do a record tax increase, he'd say it again today.
What we must do, however, is balance our distrust of giving legislators more time to monkey will laws and their legitimate need to be able to govern effectively. Given the voluminous list of "to-do" items before the last legislative session, I'm surprised they got anything done at all. Many items never even came up for a vote due to the time constraints and it leaves local governments to pick up the slack. Salt Lake and Utah Counties are both putting large transportation tax hikes on the ballot to make up for what the legislature didn't get done. What I wonder is how, in this fast-growing state, we could have even expected the legislature to have accomplished anything.
Meeting for six weeks every other year isn't going to cut it. As it is, most legislators are working far more than that in unpaid time just to have the bills and arguments drafted and ready to go before the session. Then after the session, they do more free follow-up work to try and make good on what they passed. This kind of time crunch is simply unreasonable in these modern times, and no employer could reasonably expect their employees to work so much for free. We, the employers, cannot expect our employees, the elected officials, to work for free.
This also brings up the problems with legislator compensation. Getting $120 a day plus per diems isn't making up for the salaries that many of them are leaving behind. I don't think that legislators should be raking in the dough or anything, but according to some legislative testimony, their compensation has actually been on the decline for some time now when adjusted for inflation. This discourages a lot of people from running for financial concerns. What're we left with? We're left with government double-dippers (those who hold a government job in the executive branch while being elected to the legislative) and the very financially secure. That's hardly representative of the voting public.
We need to fix this problem plauging Utah. Amend Article VI, Section 16, paragraph 1 of the Utah Constitution to double the maximum length of the session to 90 days. Also amend Article VII, Section 6 to require the consent of 2/3 of the legislature for special sessions. Increase per day rates for legislators to $150 per day to catch up with how far behind compensation has gotten behind, and make sure it keeps even with not only inflation but the state's rising wages.
A failure to make these three changes ensures we will endure an endless procession of do-nothing special sessions and discourage those who can't afford a six-week break from their job and normal salary from running for office.