May 8, 2012

You Can Lead a Horse to Water...

Patrick Laverty

It seems that locally some people are on a "Full Time Assembly" kick and I'm not sure why. I don't see how this is possibly a good idea. One of the latest people to suggest it is URI Professor Len Lardaro in an On Politics blog post with Ian Donnis today. Ian lists out Lardaro's suggestions on what would help Rhode Island.

(1) Have a full-time legislature;
(2) Dramatically reduce the size of the legislature to about 50 persons;
(3) Institute four-year terms for the legislature;
(4) Have term limits of two (four-year) terms;
(5) Give the governor a line item veto authority; and
(6) Earmark all revenues generated by increases in taxes or fees to investment-oriented uses.

I believe some are better than others, but the bad ones are pretty bad. But first, a little other background from Ian's article. Earlier in the post, Lardaro says:

In spite of a very severe crisis, where the global economy flirted with depression, Rhode Island made very few changes to either eliminate or moderate its major structural deficiencies
Prof. Lardaro is explaining that the Assembly has done little to help avoid the economic downturn that the state is experiencing but then one of his suggestions on how to fix it is to have a full-time legislature? I don't really understand that logic. I don't think the problem is that the Assembly doesn't annually have enough time to do what needs to be done. They have plenty of time. So how would a full-time Assembly fix that?

Looking at some of his other points, on number two, I think it's also a bad idea to drop to just 50 people in the Assembly. What happens when you concentrate power into fewer people? When they are corrupted, the smaller numbers can do more damage. Plus, it's fewer people for the special interests to sway. It takes less money to influence the fewer people. Plus, when you cut the Assembly down to less than half of what they have now, it's harder for the members to associate with their constituency. So for me in that regard, the more the merrier!

On the four-year terms, I don't think it's as big of a problem, especially if it is coupled with a two-term term limit. However there is very little accountability to the public that way. I do love the idea of term limits. I can never understand why an office like Governor or President has a term limit but Congress and the State Assembly don't. Clearly that just gives more power to the career politicians and that's not what our system of government was intended to be.

Line item veto? Absolutely. Great idea.

Earmark tax increases for investments? This sounds great. Of course it makes the budgeting and accounting process more difficult, but if you want to raise our taxes on something, tell us what it's for and then use the money for that purpose.

While we're at it, why not a couple more? Zero based budgeting. We keep hearing all these little stories about waste and fraud and I'd love to have the department heads come to Smith Hill and justify everything. Let's go with a couple suggestions that commenter Dan has put forward a few times. How about a completely volunteer Assembly. If it really is all about public service, as they indicate when they want your vote, then show it. Completely volunteer. No salary, no benefits. Also, let them convene every two years. If it works for a state the size of Texas, it can certainly work in Rhode Island. They can have election years off to come up with the lists of bills that they'll bring forth in the odd year.

Like Ian indicated, it's a virtual lock that these will not be adopted in their entirety and also very unlikely that any would be adopted. However, they might be a good start to just getting the Assembly out of the way.

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I don't think Lardaro's changes would help much. Here's my list:

1. Constitutional amendment requiring that each bill be limited to the scope described by its title.

2. Use a source-control system like 'Trac' instead of the current website to hold, modify, and enumerate the laws.

3. Reduce the overall size of the legislature, but add a few 'at large' seats. Limit committee chairs to the at-large seats.

4. Hold a convention to totally review the entire set of General Laws, from page one. Eliminate the fluff, re-write the stuff that isn't modern, write everything in HyperText with links to a 'definitions' section that covers the entire book.

5. Actually enforce the 'fiscal note' rules.

6. Disallow suspension of the public review period, and other measures to prevent the 'end-of-session blitz'.

7. Any bill suggesting that it nullifies another, and more and more of them start with 'notwithstanding any other...' shouldn't be considered high-enough quality to leave the sausage factory behind the legislature. If other laws need to be changed to make the current one happen, those changes should be rolled-in to the 'changeset' along with the bill.

Posted by: mangeek at May 9, 2012 8:50 AM

"I don't think the problem is that the Assembly doesn't annually have enough time to do what needs to be done. They have plenty of time."

Ahhh, they do have plenty of time! What a persuasive argument.

Seriously how would you know how much time they have? My rep. works full-time and is a single mother taking care of 5 kids and an elderly parent. I'm sure she has plenty of time. I take it you don't have kids?

btw, if you do have a wife/kids I wouldn't recommend telling her how much extra time you think she has. Right, dads?

Posted by: Russ at May 9, 2012 9:27 AM
"1. Constitutional amendment requiring that each bill be limited to the scope described by its title."

An amusing fantasy, but this would cause legal issues of nightmarish proportions. The lawyers of the state could grow rich and retire on such an amendment alone.

"3. Reduce the overall size of the legislature, but add a few 'at large' seats. Limit committee chairs to the at-large seats."

I really don't understand this push for a smaller legislature. All that does is concentrate power in the hands of fewer people and decreases local accountability to voters. It's the stereotypical contemptuous career politician's dream. I'm in favor of having as large a legislature as logistically feasible. Thousands of people in a large state, if necessary. New Hampshire has a ratio of 1 legislator to every 3000 constituents. I think that is phenomenal - they can actually meet their constituents and learn what is important to them. The smaller this ratio becomes, the more diluted the representation becomes. There is a principle in the legal field that it is difficult to responsibly represent even two people in a single case because their needs and concerns will always be divergent to an extent and require individual attention. By that principle, responsibly representing tens of thousands or millions of people is impossible by definition.

"btw, if you do have a wife/kids I wouldn't recommend telling her how much extra time you think she has. Right, dads?"

Boo, Russ. Boo.

Posted by: Dan at May 9, 2012 9:52 AM

"Seriously how would you know how much time they have? My rep. works full-time and is a single mother taking care of 5 kids and an elderly parent."

She was conscripted into the Assembly? No one else wanted the seat?

She signed up for it. And in fact, you're making a case against the full time legislature. If she's busy with all that, then I don't see how she'd have time to do it year round. But that's not up to me to determine, it's up to her. And by the way, she DID make the decision that she has time for the Assembly.

And by the way, she's more than welcome to step down if she's too busy.

Posted by: Patrick at May 9, 2012 10:01 AM

" but add a few 'at large' seats. "

MG, I'd prefer that if the Assembly is going to be bicameral, then really match the US Congress. Have the House go by population and have the Senate go by equal representation for each municipality. However as Andrew has pointed out in the past, it's unconstitutional. Courts have ruled that we can't have state legislators who represent differing numbers of people. I guess it's legal on the federal level but not the state. Doesn't make sense to me though, in the example that I would like to have.

Posted by: Patrick at May 9, 2012 10:03 AM

Ah, so now it's she doesn't have time but that's her problem. How quick that one changed.

btw, I have no complaints about my rep. and no strong opinion one way or the other on going to a full-time legislature. Just pointing out that anyone who works two jobs and has a family is pulled in nine directions on a daily basis. Kind of thought I was stating the obvious there (although maybe not so obvious to folks who don't have kids).

Posted by: Russ at May 9, 2012 10:13 AM

I've been thinking about this recently, and I think the only real hope is to completely change the idea of how representation works. What I would like to try is to combine the current legislature into one full-time body (which would probably be called the Senate, but would act like the House in some ways), and organize the House like a jury -- random citizens, one month terms (I don't think it really matters if the number is just 12 or one for each current district). The Senate crafts and passes legislation, the House gets an up or down vote to approve it and send it to the Governor.

The original point of a bicameral legislature is that one house would represent the people and the other would be a more elite class. In practice, though, both nationally and locally, that distinction has been obliterated. If you actually want to represent the average person, you literally can't do better than a random sample, so I think we should probably just adopt it as a form of governance. And, yes, I know it probably sounds crazy, but people are routinely sentenced to death by people chosen by the same principle.

Posted by: Mario at May 9, 2012 3:59 PM

"having as large a legislature as logistically feasible"

I really want to believe that More Democracy is what we need, but I just can't help but think that a smaller, more expert group of technocrats would be better for us. The only thing that's easier to manipulate than politicians (who can usually be purchased in $250 increments) are people.

We are where we are because we let the last generation have their cake and eat it too. Nobody is going to vote for 'less services and higher taxes', which is precisely what the experts are telling us we need to do in the long run.

Posted by: mangeek at May 9, 2012 7:04 PM

Also... the technology exists to allow direct democracy, but I'm sure we all see whay that would be a disaster.

We already have too many disparate interests playing on Smith Hill. I don't want my Rep to pay attention to individual issues regarding minutiae, I want their staffers to be compiling info on 'what's wrong' for them to process.

Posted by: mangeek at May 9, 2012 7:08 PM

"which is precisely what the experts are telling us we need to do in the long run."

I don't know who these experts are who have supposedly formed a consensus. We have a dozen "policy experts" on RIFuture and Nobel Prize economist turned mad-dog pundit Paul Krugman telling us the stimulus needs to be four times as large and spending needs to go through the roof or we'll all die. The union "experts" want public employee raises to help the local economy. Occupy Wall Street wants to just take it all from the rich without cutting services. Tom Sgouros has a report ready to justify all of it - just put him in charge and everything will be fine.

Posted by: Dan at May 9, 2012 7:51 PM

Russ' rep(Diaz)is apparently the only GA member who refuses to contribute to her health care premium.No problem using it for five kids though-disgusting.
My rep is a Democrat and does his job well.My senator is a Democrat and is a disgrace-I'm not being partisan here.

Posted by: joe bernstein at May 11, 2012 7:23 AM

Joe, you're spiting her for using the benefits she earned to provide for her childrens' health? No surprise she needs the benefit if you ask me. Where would you say she would rank if we listed the GA members by wealth? For those than can afford to contribute and do, good for them.

Posted by: Russ at May 11, 2012 1:44 PM

"Joe, you're spiting her for using the benefits she earned to provide for her childrens' health?"

Serving as a public representative does not "earn" anyone free (taxpayer-paid) health insurance for an entire family unless the word "earn" has been stripped of all meaning.

If she can't afford being a single mother of five children, well, you can finish that sentence for yourself.

Posted by: Dan at May 11, 2012 2:31 PM

"Earned" benefits?Why the hell do part time legislators get medical insurance at all?AFAIK all Diaz has done is attempt to get more people who are here illegally on the gravy train,via in state tuition,her attempt to get state health bennies for daycare workers,attempting to limit law enforcement cooperation that might impact her favorite "constituency"-illegal aliens.
I wonder if Ms.Diaz lives in the poor lifestyle you portray her as following.What kind of car has she got?What kind of house?She comes across as a scam artist-you want to kiss her ass,Russ,go ahead-she's YOUR rep,after all,not mine,Thank God.
As far as single moms with five kids I have two words:birth control.

Posted by: joe bernstein at May 11, 2012 5:23 PM

LOL, Joe. We had a "progressive" state legislator like Diaz in Massachusetts when I was living in Boston - her name was Dianne Wilkerson. Always playing the race card, going on about "civil rights," and pandering to her poor minority and progressive voting blocks while living the high life. Suckers like Russ voted her in again and again because she was "good on the issues." She was eventually caught on tape stuffing a cash bribe into her bra by the FBI. She then claimed she was being targeted due to discrimination.

Posted by: Dan at May 11, 2012 7:01 PM

I remember her-typical poverty pimp.
I don't think Russ is a sucker at all-he's a smart guy-she is just what he wants in a rep-she was originally shepherded along by Matt Jerzyk-he was an SEIU bigwig and she was trying to organize the "cuidaninos"cottage industry with him.Russ and Matt are not exactly enemies,you know.
It's all just cynical politics-a great American pastime-except I think Diaz' loyalties are to many people who aren't here legally.
I recall when Diaz dared to support Hillary,Jerzyk went off on her pretty good.She wasn't minding her mentor,it seems.
The woman has never sounded like she has brain one to be honest.

Posted by: joe bernstein at May 11, 2012 7:14 PM
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