Morris: Texas Has it Right
by Leo Morris
“No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session.” – Gideon J. Tucker, 1866
I just visited my brother in Texas. Let me tell you a little about that state.
It is so big that it could encompass Indiana and 12 other states with plenty of room left over. The area of Houston alone is roughly the size of Connecticut.
It has 17 metropolitan areas of 200,000 population or more, three different climates and four defined areas with distinct geographical features.
If Texas were a country, it would control the world’s 18th-largest economy.
The latest two-year budget for the government of Texas is $217 billion, more than six times that of Indiana’s $34 billion.
But with all that vast, sprawling, complicated, expensive reality to deal with, the Texas legislature sees fit to convene only every other year. Lawmakers take even-numbered years off, so in 2020, Texans can go about their daily business without the threat of legislative mischief. Hoosiers, though, will tremble in fear at what the General Assembly will concoct in its short session designed to deal with state “emergencies.”
The quote marks are necessary around the word emergency because the state constitution’s authors were thinking of the sorts of situations that might arise because not all contingencies can be anticipated by the two-year budget adopted in the long session.
But if 2020 is like 2018, there will be about 800 bills introduced, with roughly 20 percent of them reaching the governor’s desk to be signed into law. Anybody out there think there will really be that many emergencies in the coming year? No, legislators will be merely pushing their pet projects, perfecting existing law by making it denser and less understandable and massaging the egos of campaign contributors and interest group lobbyists.
Hence my biannual plea for simpler, saner, less expensive state government: Let’s end the short session of the General Assembly.
Lawmakers could use the off year to measure the effects of previous legislation and carefully consider future efforts. They could convene study committees to better understand the issues facing the state. They could spend more time listening to the concerns of constituents. They could try to better learn the needs and potentials of their districts and how they fit into the state’s needs and potentials.
And, not a small consideration, they could save a bit of Hoosiers’ tax dollars instead of looking for more ways to spend it.
We like to boast that we have part-time legislators who accept a modest annual salary for their efforts, $22,616. But they also get a daily allowance of $155 for the 60 days of the long session and 30 days of the short session, plus other expenses.
It averages about $60,000 a year for being a legislator, and many earn more than $70,000, according to a 2015 analysis by the Indianapolis Star. That’s for working about 27 hours a week on official business for two months of working days in the long session and one month’s worth in the short session.
Just imagine the good that could be done with all the expense money from simply ditching the 30-day session. And think of the peace of mind it would bring Hoosiers.
Yes, making the change would mean amending the state constitution, not an easy thing to do. But so would other proposals, such as the one by a Dyer Democrat to lower the age of eligibility to serve in the Indiana House or Senate to age 18. If there were ever an idea unworthy of emergency status, that is surely it.
In fact, try this experiment. Every time you hear of a hot debate surrounding a 2020 legislative issue, ask yourself: Is this really necessary, or could it wait a year?
I’ve been doing that for about 30 years and I can count on one hand the times an issue couldn’t have waited, and each of them could have been handled with a one- or two-day special session, simply, cheaply and with our sanity intact.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.