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Missouri senator calls for shorter legislative session to help balance budget

Saturday, January 28, 2012 | 5:07 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers scrounging for ways to save money in a tight budget may have hit upon a personal solution — work less.

The state legislature could save more than $400,000 annually by shaving several weeks off its session, according to a financial estimate for a proposed constitutional amendment that could be debated in the Senate as soon as this week.

The proposal would shorten the length of Missouri's annual legislative session by ending it in late March instead of mid-May, beginning in 2015. The plan was endorsed last week by a Senate committee. If approved by the full Senate and House, it would appear before voters on the November ballot.

The financial estimate, prepared by legislative staff, based the projected savings on reduced per diem and mileage expenses for lawmakers and a lower cost for the extra employees needed to staff the House and Senate when the chambers are in session. Neither the legislation nor the fiscal estimate mentions anything about changing legislative salaries, which are about $36,000 annually per lawmaker.

Although he acknowledges a potential savings, sponsoring Sen. John Lamping, R-St. Louis County, said that costs are not his motivating factor behind the proposal. Instead, Lamping said, a shorter session would encourage lawmakers to be more efficient when they are meeting.

He said they could draft more of their bills in the legislature's off-season. That could ease the burden on legislative staff, who often work late into the night in the session's final week as lawmakers scramble to craft last-minute compromises.

Data provided by Lamping's office shows that the length of state legislative sessions varies considerably between states. Lamping said the pending legislation would shorten Missouri's session from about 73 legislative days to about 48.

Lamping said he thinks the legislature would be able to complete its work of passing laws and crafting a state budget, even on a shorter time frame.

"I think if they understood that they have 48 days, they'd be more prepared when we get here," he said. "You play to whatever the rules are."

This would not be the first time that Missouri has changed the length of its legislative session. Lawmakers used to meet in regular session only every other year, until voters amended the constitution in 1970 to have annual sessions — ending on June 15 in odd-numbered years and April 30 in even-numbered years. Voters amended the constitution again in 1988, requiring lawmakers to end their work each year on the first Friday following the second Monday in May — the deadline that remains in effect today.

Marvin Overby, a political science professor at the MU, said it's difficult to predict whether a shorter session would make the legislature more productive. That's because legislators do more than just make laws. They also debate ideas that may become bills in the future and keep an eye on the rest of the state's government.

Having lawmakers in session for less time might make it harder for them to oversee the executive branch, which operates on a full-time, year-round basis, Overby said. And lawmakers might not be able to do as much "fire-alarm oversight," responding to complaints about state government as constituents bring them up.

"Part of representation is having someone to (complain) to," Overby said. "You want to have legislators who are on the job so that they can handle issues that constituents have."

The current measure is similar to a 2010 proposal by Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville. That measure also gained committee endorsement but stalled in the full Senate.

Lamping, a first-term senator, said Senate leaders had voiced some support for his bill. He predicted that voters would "overwhelmingly" support it if it were on the November ballot.

Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer said Lamping's proposal could come up for debate during the current session, but he also said shortening the session could mean that fewer laws get passed, even if there is a two-year adjustment period.

"In the past we've had shorter sessions," said Mayer, R-Dexter. "A lot of things have changed in that time, not only in the government but also in society."

George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University, agreed that it might appeal to voters in the state who feel government should do less.

"Missouri is already a part-time legislature, and making it more part-time is going to have an appeal for the small-government culture," Connor said.

But because much of legislative work gets done in the session's final week, shortening the time lawmakers have could increases the chance that a special session is needed, which might end up actually increasing what the legislature ultimately costs taxpayers, Connor said.


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