Special Report: How to Score a Legislature
Evaluating Productivity a Tough Job With State Comparisons List
In which state would you rather be a constituent?
State A pays its full-time legislators over $60,000 a year, plus hefty compensations for committee chairs. Their pay reflects a smaller legislative body where each representative has a larger constituency.
State B pays its part-time legislators under $15,000 for the year with no extra compensation besides travel expenses. There are more legislators, each representing a smaller number of people.
An economical-minded constituent may opt for State B, which pays its entire legislative body what State A may pay a single chairman. But a constituent looking for a more productive legislature may choose State A. because its lawmakers put in more hours and have a considerably higher monetary incentive to serve constituents.
It’s a theoretical toss up, but in reality there are distinctly different results.
Massachusetts’ 200 legislators are each paid $61,132.99 a year; committee chairmen get $7,500 to $15,000 extra. In 2010 of the 5,363 bills that were filed, 476, less than 9 percent, were enacted into law.
New Hampshire’s 424 legislators, comprising the largest legislature in the U.S., are paid $200 a year for a six-month session running from January to June. Last year Granite State lawmakers filed 946 bills, passing 376 into law – a rate of about 40 percent.
How would you score it? Massachusetts passed more bills, but at a lower rate of bills filed. With less time and far less money, New Hampshire may seem more efficient. But there are other, less measurable factors: What was the complexity of the bills? What was the level of debate?
“The work of a legislature can be affected by many factors – such as the economy, whether it is a redistricting year, if there are any major federal or state court cases, or any disasters in the state,” says Brenda Erickson, senior research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “These are all the kinds of things that impact the productivity and priorities in a state legislature.”
One thing is for certain. Massachusetts lawmakers start out a session with a much fuller plate. The national average for bill introductions is 2,209 bills per year, according to Erickson. The average for the Massachusetts General Court, however, is over 7,000 bills.
“Massachusetts is very hard to compare when talking about bill introduction because it is the only state where anyone can introduce a bill, even just a citizen off the street,” she said.
According to John Regan, executive vice president of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state’s two-year session also complicates comparisons to other states.
“The odd number years tend to be a little lighter because they’re laying the ground work which gets finalized in the second half which are the even years,” he said.
Regan, who closely follows Beacon Hill for his association, notes that what a legislature chooses not to act on is as important as what it chooses to move forward.
“There’s a balance between quantity and quality and I would argue for quality,” he said. “Just because they process a lot of bills and move a lot of bills does not make a legislature productive. It’s not like a pencil factory and we’re counting how many pencils go out and how fast. The Legislature doesn’t balance that way.”
And this year, according to Regan, quality was focused on balancing the budget.
“The amount of time you spend managing your finances is a lot more when money is tight,” he says.
Another factor is the way states handle their budgets. New Hampshire is one of 19 states that have biennial budgets, meaning the legislature debates the budget on even-numbered years. On odd numbered years, the legislature can focus all its efforts on other issues. Massachusetts and 31 other states write a new budget each year, taking up months of legislative time.
It would be expected that ideological debate would consume the legislative process in New Hampshire, which had an evenly divided House (222 Democrats, and 176 Republicans) and Senate (14 Democrats and 10 Republicans) in 2010, but it seems that that isn’t the case.
Massachusetts, with 142 Democrats and 15 Republicans in the House and 35 Democrats and five Republicans in the Senate, still does not pass as many bills as New Hampshire.
“Each state is unique,” Erickson said. “And that trickles down to the legislature. Each legislature represents a microcosm of its state’s people, traditions, and political cultures, and it can be impacted by them.”