Thursday, March 08, 2007

Why A Part-Time Texas Legislature Is Out-Moded and Promotes Corruption

I almost fell out of my chair when I read today Chris Bell’s article posted a couple of days ago at ExaminerNews.Com. Bell says that the idea of a Texas legislature being comprised of citizen-legislators is out-dated and invites personal use of campaign funds as well as influence peddling on the part of lobbyists.

I couldn’t agree more, and have made several postings on the subject.

Of Texas low-paid Texas legislators, Bell wrote this:

“Unless they’re retired or independently wealthy, they’re in a tough spot. There aren’t a whole lot of jobs that lend themselves to a legislator’s schedule, so those in office become prime targets”

The answer, Bell writes, is to raise the pay that Texas legislators receive, and he suggests raising it to $100,000 per year, and reduce the amount of outside income that they can receive.

Why do we pay our legislators at a level that is sub minimum wage? Well for one, they only work 140 days per year every other year. We have a part-time legislature so they are paid for part-time work.

Why does the second most populous state in America have a part-time legislature? I checked and it’s because of the reaction to Reconstruction. I found this here:

“Harvey Tucker, a political scientist at Texas A&M University and an expert on the Texas Legislature, says that Texas biennial sessions and low pay for legislators date to the post-Civil War era.”

"’It has to do with the time period when the constitution of Texas was written. It’s a post-Reconstruction reaction. Southerners viewed Reconstruction as a foreign army,’ he said. ‘When they got control, they said 'never will we have state government -- Yankee or Texan -- with that kind of power again.'"

That Texas needs a full-time legislature is obvious as evidenced by the fact that special sessions have been called more often than not lately. There simply isn’t enough time to get done all that needs to be done. The most populous states in America have discarded their citizen-legislator systems. Check it out here.

And there is some evidence that a full-time well-paid legislature is freer of potential conflict. From the same article:

“Full-time legislators may be less inclined to be swayed by special interests and be accused of a conflict of interest because they are more likely to be paid a decent wage, they say”

Robert Stern, former general counsel on the California Fair Practices Commission (equivalent to the Texas Ethics Commission) says this of his state’s full-time system:

"We don’t see examples of outright conflicts in California, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. My feeling is, California legislators have less time to have outside income than obviously the legislators in Texas."

Bell also has this to say about reporting about ethically challenged legislators:

“I would also like to read fewer stories about the conflicts of interest and ethical challenges faced by lawmakers because of the obvious need most have to supplement their income.”

This is a very telling statement in my opinion. What it tells me is that not only is this citizen-legislator system a system of institutional corruption, but that because they have no alternatives to corrupt practices, we should all turn a blind eye to the processes and practices.

In other words, it’s a devil’s dilemma.

And it’s a dilemma that legislators themselves are supportive of. Despite the low pay, there are lots of perks to being in the Texas legislature. Read about them here. If we are to make real ethical reforms in our system, the perks would have to go.

And they like their perks.
It’s so obvious. The old system has got to go. Texas has become too big in population to have a part-time legislature. Time demands on legislators are much higher now than in the past, legislator schedules no longer allow a citizen-legislator to hold down a full-time full paying job. The result is that Texas has an out-moded citizen-legislator system whose very construct invites corruption and influence peddling – even to the point that legislators cannot live at standard subsistence levels without bending the rules.

I’m with Chris Bell. Let’s let sanity prevail. Let’s have a full-time high quality legislature that is well-paid and limited to other outside sources of income.

1 comment:

Robin Frazier said...

As a former state employee I have seen what a part time legislature is good for. NOTHING! The Bureaucrats Know how to play the waiting game between sessions. In concert with Republican philosophy of do nothing government, nothing gets done for the people of Texas. The special interest on the other hand get plenty.