OLYMPIA – The Legislature is, by practice and constitutional decree, a part-time gig.
Some years are more part time than others, and some legislators put in more hours than their colleagues. But a job description that demands, at most, 105 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in the evens can’t really be called full time, particularly when weekends count as session “days” but legislators rarely work them.
Yes, I know that in four of the last five years they’ve had to stay longer than their allotted days for special sessions, but really, whose fault was that? Certainly not the voters’.
The Legislature might study whether this is the best way to go under a resolution approved last week to set up a commission – or maybe a task force or a study group. Calling for a study is often code in Olympia for putting something off for a year in hopes that people will forget about it, but there was some interest in the Senate Government Operations and Security Committee for kicking some ideas around.
Washington’s sessions are shorter than 21 smaller states, said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, the prime sponsor of the resolution. When the current annual configuration took effect in 1979 – before that they met every other year – the state had about 4.1 million people. Now it has about 6.9 million; the number of districts remains the same, so each legislator’s constituency just gets bigger and bigger.
Oregon has a six-month session, she said. Massachusetts has an 11-month session. Even North Dakota, New Hampshire and Vermont all have longer sessions. “We need to step back and say, Is this the right thing to do?”
“We have a lot of complicated issues,” Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, the committee chairwoman, agreed. “I think we’re changing the lives of the citizens of the state of Washington sometimes a little too quickly.”
One problem with having longer sessions would be more legislation, Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, astutely noted. Legislators already introduce about 2,000 bills in a 105-day session, he said. Lengthen it, and they might introduce 5,000.
“Maybe we should have restrictions on the amount of bills each legislator could introduce,” he said. Benton, by the way, can be considered an expert on the subject, having already prime-sponsored 53 bills on everything from fireworks and firearms to voters and dockworkers. Were the other 146 legislators to follow his lead, the Olympic Peninsula might be denuded of trees to print all these great ideas.
Maybe the Legislature could follow a California model, where members work Monday through Thursday and can be back in their district for a three-day weekend, Kohl-Welles said. It also punctuates its session with recesses.
The resolution is headed for the Senate floor, so the study committee might be set up. If so, here are a few ideas it could study:
Cut the number of session days by a third, but don’t count the weekends in the 105- or 60-day limits. Schedule them as off days, because legislators usually take them off anyway.
Take a month off in the middle to let all of the great ideas ferment. Legislators can hold town hall meetings in person rather than by teleconference, or district hearings on important issues, or go on fact-finding missions to Maui. Or they can put in time at those real jobs they like to talk about.
Cap and trade legislation. Give every legislator a limit of 10 bills he or she can prime-sponsor. If great minds like Benton can’t help but come up with more great ideas, they would have to find someone who only has a couple of sponsorships willing to serve as prime sponsor or give up a card with the rights to a bill that the more prolific legislator would have to turn in, or the hopper would spit it back out. The legislators would have to report what the quid pro quo was to the Public Disclosure Commission.
Cut their pay. Legislators currently make about $42,000. A bill last week said the average wage is about $52,000, meaning legislators make 81 percent of the average worker. But the average worker shows up to the job about 250 days a year (maybe 240 if they get a two-week paid vacation). So even in a 105-day session, they work less than half the days as the average worker, and that’s being generous enough to count the weekends as workdays. And the pay is the same for the short session. How many workers get paid the same salary for working only about 60 percent as many days?
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