On May 24, 2023

Holding down legislative expenses


By John McClaughry

Editor’s note: John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (ethanallen.org). He has served in both the House and Senate.

 One interest group fared extraordinarily well during the just-completed legislative session. That’s the interest group comprised of representatives and senators. Unlike other interest groups, who have to lobby legislators for the benefits they want, the legislators themselves get to vote on their own benefits. This was an opportunity not to be missed.

This year’s legislative compensation bill (S.39) prescribes a 100% increase from today’s $14,616 per year salary to $29,766 in 2027. It also allows legislators to enjoy state employee health insurance. The state’s 80% contribution for a $27,300 family plan comes to $21,840.

One new proposal in the package would credit each legislator with one day a week pay when the Legislature is not in session. This was a big issue for former House Speaker (1985-1994) Ralph Wright (D-Bennington). In South Boston, where Speaker Wright had been introduced to politics, this was known as “walking around money.” He was not however successful in getting it enacted in his day.

Back then, one popular way for legislators to feather their own nests was budgeting for 16 weeks in session, discovering at the end of that period (early May) that much needed legislative work had fallen short of completion, then rushing through a budget adjustment bill adding two or three more paid weeks. One year when I was there I blocked a last minute extension and made the legislature work two weeks for free. 

That didn’t improve my standing with a lot of legislators, of both parties. No wonder they didn’t buy my amendment to make meal reimbursement for traveling legislators ($35 a day) be the same as for state employees ($21.35 a day). Legislators felt they needed 62% more than state employees to survive on out of state trips.

To be sure, there is a good case for tracking legislative compensation to allow for dollar depreciation, just as the per gallon gasoline tax rate has to be increased from time to time to bring in enough to maintain the highways. Some legislators seem to believe they deserve more, the more they spend and the more tax dollars they bring in. I would rather give them a performance bonus based on how well they restrain spending and ease the burden on taxpayers who provide the tax dollars.

In 2004 the Ethan Allen Institute proposed a Vermont version of the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights. That constitutional amendment provided that whenever annual revenues exceeded an index based on population growth plus an inflation rate, all excess funds must be returned to the taxpayers. This year Colorado returned $2.7 billion to taxpayers. If the Legislature wants to keep and spend more than the formula allows, the people have to approve the spending proposal via state referendum. (It doesn’t have the bonus feature.)

Another solution to shrink legislative spending on themselves is to constitutionally limit the length of the sessions. Proposal 10, that I introduced in 1991, provided that “Any session of the General Assembly which convenes in January shall adjourn for such year no later than April 30. If by such adjournment date the General Assembly has failed to approve appropriations for the support of government for the ensuing fiscal year, the Governor is authorized… to allocate expenditures among such funds and accounts as he or she may find to be in the best interest of the people of the state. In such case, the amount of such expenditures shall not exceed the revenues available during the fiscal year or the amount appropriated for the previous fiscal year.”

It never got a hearing, of course, but Gov. Scott has recently favored a three month (12 week) legislative session. It clearly will not get any hearing before the present Legislature, for which no amount of spending is enough to meet all the needs that they find pressing.

Another proposal, revived by Rob Roper, is to reduce the size of the House to a much smaller number. This was hotly debated in 1965 when the old 246-member House was reduced to the present 150.

A single member House district in Vermont represents about 4,000 people. At the other end of the spectrum the California Assembly has only 80 members, each representing 465,000 people. Larger House districts do however reduce citizen access to their representative.

Another incentive I have suggested from time to time is paying the legislators half of their 16 week salary on day one, and the other half on the day of adjournment. The neediest members, having spent their first half salary, would then put pressure on the leadership to finish legislating, collect their checks, and go home. Needless to say…

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