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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Mark Harmsworth: Calls for a full-time legislature leave out the costs

Mark Harmsworth

By Mark Harmsworth

Many have shared the experience of a restaurant charging for bread set on the table without it being ordered. How upsetting the experience was depends on appetite, quality of bread, and how much the customer was charged. The restaurant just assumes that the customer wants the bread even if they don’t. Now it seems that some in Washington want to do the same with lawmakers in Olympia.

A recent poll conducted by the left leaning Northwest Progressive Institute, the results of which sparked their claim that 59% of likely voters want to see the Washington state Legislature meet year-round instead of the limited legislative sessions we have today.

Here’s the question NPI asked:

“Washington’s current plan of government limits regular sessions of the Legislature to 105 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years, which means state lawmakers can only consider bills from January until either March or April. Do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree that Washington should amend its state Constitution to allow the Legislature to be in session year-round?”

With only 18% of recipients disagreeing and the rest (22%) not sure, NPI concludes the time is ripe for the Legislature to propose a constitutional amendment allowing for a full-time legislature and send it to the ballot.

The problem with this conclusion is what was left missing from the question – context about pricing and substitutions.

A full-time legislature will cost millions of additional dollars for legislators and staffing increases. And while the question asserted that the Legislature could “only” consider bills in certain months, if an emergency arose, our Legislature can be convened in a special session to consider urgent matters.

Think of how that changes the question. Instead of hearing “state lawmakers can only consider bills from January until either March or April” one would instead hear “state lawmakers can only consider bills from January until either March or April or during a special session if an emergency arises.” It removes any sense of urgency implied by the limitation of session days.

Then you add the costs. The average part-time Washington legislator annual costs to the taxpayer approximate $112,000 when you include salary, per-diem, medical/dental and pension benefits. That works out at $123 per hour based on the 60-105 day sessions. Moving to a full-time could more than triple that salary.

Plus, even without a full-time legislature, Washington is one of the most prolific creators of legislation (1,634 bills in 2023) including such essential gems such as declaring pickleball the state sport. One would think that a legislature that has time to consider legislation of that quality is a legislature with enough time already on its calendar for the essential running of the state.

A more realistic question to measure public support for a full-time legislature would be something like, “At the cost of millions of additional tax dollars for increased salaries for elected officials and their staff, should we amend the Washington state Constitution so that our Legislature is full-time instead of relying on special sessions to deal with any emergencies that come up?”

Of course, there are other considerations on the positive and negative side of this question, but the point here is a simple illustration that the initial, seemingly straightforward question asked by the Northwest Progressive Institute for public sentiment on the issue doesn’t really answer anything because it doesn’t include the costs and trade-offs.

While some legislators do more than the required 60-105 days per year, many do not. As a former legislator, I can testify to that fact first-hand.

Rather than focusing on making themselves full time, the Legislature should consider passing term limits. A resolution introduced in 2021 did just that, but gained no traction and was never voted on.

Legislators should also look at state regulations which currently fill 32 thick volumes constituting thousands of pages and a stack of books over 5 feet high. If state regulations required a sunset provision and legislative approval before renewal, the state could clean up our outdated code and allow citizens a better opportunity to track the rules that are supposed to govern them.

The role of a legislator should not be a career choice that citizens aspire to. It needs to be temporary in nature.

Washington state does not need a full-time Legislature, but they do need full-time citizen oversight.

After all, we need to make sure we’re only getting what we ordered.

Mark Harmsworth is the director of Washington Policy Center’s Center for Small Business and a former legislator. Harmsworth and his family live in Mill Creek. Members of the Cowles family, owners of The Spokesman-Review, have previously hosted fundraisers for the Washington Policy Center and sit on the organization’s board.{&end}