Wisconsin should return to a part-time Legislature

As we more candidates throw in their hats for the Wisconsin legislature, it’s worth noting that we could govern differently. Here’s my column for the Washington County Daily News.

When it comes to compensation levels for legislators, there are two schools of thought. The first says the rules of compensation that apply in business should also apply in government. Members of Congress are responsible for spending trillions of dollars every year. Members of Wisconsin’s Legislature are responsible for spending tens of billions of dollars every year. In order to attract the brightest minds to make these tough spending and policy decisions that affect the lives of millions of people, we must offer compensation at a level sufficient to lure the best minds out of the private sector, or so the argument goes.

Critics of this thought argue that legislators who take the job based on the money are not worthy of it. Instead, people should want to serve the public good regardless of the compensation. Critics also argue that legislators who have a greater financial stake in the job are more susceptible to the influences of donors and purely political forces. After all, taking a stand that results in the loss of a job that pays $5,000 is much less painful than losing a job that pays $500,000.

The second school of thought regarding pay for legislators says that it should be as low as possible. This argument declares that low levels of compensation would be sure to attract only those truly interested in serving the public interest. Also, it’s nice to save a few bucks over the other option.

Critics of this school of thought argue that low pay will attract too many of the “wrong” people. Namely, those who are rich enough to not care about the pay and those who are rabid ideologues to whom the power is more important than the compensation.

Personally, I advocate for higher compensation at the federal level and lower compensation at the state level. Today, let us just worry about Wisconsin.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Wisconsin’s legislators have the ninth highest pay in the nation. In other words, 41 other states manage to function paying their legislators less. Wisconsin’s legislators currently make $50,950 per year plus health insurance, pension benefits, and a per diem of as much as $157 (except for Dane County legislators).

Wisconsin is also one of only 10 states to have a full time legislature. States with full time legislatures are New York, Pennsylvania, California, Michigan, Alaska, Ohio, Massachusetts, Hawaii and Illinois.

Wisconsin should move to a part time legislature,dramatically cut pay for legislators, and eliminatebenefits — including pensions and health insurance.Wisconsin’s Legislature should be part time for three major reasons.

First, Wisconsin just does not need a full time legislature. Our state has a biennial budget. The budget is the single most important piece of legislation that the legislature must pass and they only have to touch it every two years. They also tend to use the budget as the mechanism to move controversial policy issues. Most years, the budget is debated and decided within a few months.

Except for the budget, everything else that the legislature acts upon is discretionary. They decide that they want to pass some laws about whatever burr is currently under their saddle and they go to work. There is no good reason why the Wisconsin legislature could not convene for one session every two years, pass the budget and whatever else is important, and go home until it is time to pass the next budget. If something truly pressing comes along, the governor can always call the legislature into special session.

Second, full time legislators with few pressing issues are prone to draft and pass useless, stupid, and intrusive laws. As the old proverb goes, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Having a bunch of legislators sitting around Madison looking for something to do or how to make a name for themselves is a recipe for a brew of bad laws. Paradoxically, too much time to think sometimes results in idiocy.

Third, Wisconsin’s legislators should spend as little time in Madison as possible. They should have to earn a living, adhere to the regulations they enact, and pay the taxes that they vote for. They should spend almost all of their time in their districts interacting with everyday Wisconsinites as a customer, employer, employee, service provider, etc. — not as a politician. The value of the “citizen legislator” is in the first word.

As a part time legislature, miniscule pay and no benefits makes sense. The lack of a pension plan should help with a healthy turnover in the legislature. Also, Wisconsin should reimburse actual mileage and meals instead of a flat per diem. Legislators should not view their time in Madison as a career.

Wisconsin had a part time legislature until the 1970s. It’s time to return to our roots.