Our state legislature is awful. The solution is for it to meet more often.
That’s a tough argument to make. Yet the legislature may accept the challenge. It might refer to the general election ballot in November 2006 a proposed constitutional amendment for yearly sessions. The General Assembly meets every other year now, by design of the state Constitution.
Legislators would argue that the term-limit law mires them in inexperience. They would argue that meeting more frequently within those limited terms would offer the best hope for more efficient government. They would argue that it makes no sense in the modern economy to compile the state budget only biennially and 27 months out, in the spring of odd-numbered years for a two-year period not to begin until summer.
Voters’ instincts will be to counter, “You guys make a big enough mess as it is. Why give you a chance to make twice as big a mess?”
With annual sessions, Deltic Timber wouldn’t need to wait two years to use the state Senate as a subsidiary to try again to make self-serving law in defiance of local water supply protection.
Oaklawn wouldn’t need to wait two years to use the whole legislature as a subsidiary to try to make more of a casino of itself. Evangelicals could take twice as many shots at tearing down that ungodly wall of separation between church and state. Lobbyists could carry charge cards in both hands. Companies could compound their tax breaks annually. Cliques could solidify to fight childishly over capital improvement money.
Considering all that, the annual assembly of our legislature seems less than a compelling need.
The budget inefficiency poses no pressing problem. If budgets turn out to be too conservative, a big surplus builds up for legislators to squander later for football stadiums for high schools without football teams. If tax collections become stagnant — and I wouldn’t be surprised — then the Revenue Stabilization Act requires a proportionate reduction in spending. If a genuine emergency arises, such as in Medicaid — and I wouldn’t be surprised — the governor can always call a special session.
But the legislative process offers the opportunity for give and take. Voters might want to consider letting legislators have their annual sessions but only in exchange for reforms in the sometimes corrupt and always haphazard way the legislators operate.
Here are a few ideas:
— Bills would have to be filed no later than 90 days before sessions. No “shell bills” could be filed, meaning bills with headings but left otherwise blank for mischievous insertion of amendments later. No amendment could be offered that was not germane to the subject matter of the original bill. (Somehow we’d have to define “germane” tightly to keep speakers of the House from getting their Rules Committees to define the word self-servingly.) The purpose would be to give the public an advance look at the real substance of bills well before they got made into law pre-emptively and expeditiously by special interest skid-greasing.
— Local capital projects seeking money from the General Improvement Fund would have to be filed a year in advance and subjected to pre-audits and formally recommended by a panel of appointees of the legislative and executive branches and a public member, perhaps to be named by the association of certified public accountants.
— The special language subcommittee, the den of all fiscal iniquity, would be abolished. Any special language in spending bills could be handled by the full Joint Budget Committee, operating in a large room with lots of public chairs and at a decent hour.
— Legislators could accept no favors, not even cups of coffee, from registered lobbyists.
If legislators went for all that, I’d grudgingly let them meet for 60 days every winter. They do manage to breathe life into that domed museum that is our state Capitol.