Friday, November 20, 2009

Is the Citizen Legislature to Blame? Maybe for Boredom.

In a story in today’s Times, embattled former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno is quoted as attributing his use of a state secretary for private business and collecting consulting fees from myriad entities with state contracts to the fact that New York has a part-time legislature.

With this in mind, we decided to take a look at what the National Conference of State Legislatures has to say about part-time versus full-time legislatures. NCSL stresses that legislatures can’t be divided into two black and white categories, but interestingly enough, NCSL puts New York in a category with California, Michigan, and Pennsylvania – states that have longer sessions and larger districts, and where legislators have larger staffs and “are paid enough to make a living without requiring outside income.” In fact, according to NCSL, legislators in New York have the third-highest salaries in the nation. (Granted, $79,500 a year may make it tough to live in and represent a district on the Upper East Side, but the median household income in Saratoga and Rensselear Counties, which Bruno represented, is less than $50,000.)

Aside from salaries and session length, though, New York may be less like California and more like the states that NCSL identifies as requiring less time of legislators and compensating them with quite low salaries that usually must be supplemented with outside income. As we’ve written many times before, legislators in New York spend shockingly little time studying issues through the committee process and improving legislation accordingly. So maybe when Bruno blamed New York’s citizen legislature system for his outside dealings, he was really saying that he got into trouble because he had too much time on his hands.

Fortunately, we know how to fix that problem.

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