Over the weekend the Texas Tribune had a article regarding our part-time legislature, A Part-Time Legislature, but in Whose Interest? Much of their article has to do with the issue that there’s little transparency and even less punishment when legislators make questionable decisions regarding how they make their living.
Wonderfully, it turns out, for many of those elected. Paid a pittance by taxpayers for their official state duties, lawmakers need to make a living elsewhere, and the prestige and influence of their elective office often helps them do it.
But with a conflict disclosure system rife with holes, virtually toothless ethics laws often left to the interpretation of the lawmakers they are supposed to regulate, and a Legislature historically unwilling to make itself more transparent, the reality is Texans know exceedingly little about who or what influences the people elected to represent them. They have no way to differentiate between lawmakers motivated entirely by the interests of their constituents and those in it for their own enrichment.
“Ostensibly, there is a defined level of disclosure and an agreed code of conduct,” said Jack Gullahorn, a Texas ethics expert who represents the state’s trade association for lobbyists. “But in general, either the sanctions aren’t there or the provisions aren’t clear enough to give people that don’t want to play by the rules any incentive to avoid the consequences for their actions.”
Over the coming months, The Texas Tribune will look at these lawmakers and the ethics rules that govern them, addressing issues like conflicts of interest and breaches in public accountability.
In other words is a legislator beholden to their constituents of to those who pay them a salary to live on? It definitely makes for a murky existence. In the comments Gritsforbreakfast makes a solid point in the comments of the Tribune article. That the “part time” nature of the legislature, (meeting 140 days every two years), is not responsible for this. But there are two aspects of the part time/full time discussion. One is the discussion of how often the legislature should meet, annual or biennial sessions. And the other, whether they are paid a full time or a part time wage.
Kuff had this to say about the second in relation to the Tribune article, On conflicts of interest.
A big part of the problem is that being a legislator means needing to take a six-month leave of absence from your job every other year, for which you get paid all of $7,200. It’s not particularly conducive to holding a regular job, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of people who want to hire you. It’s just that these are often people and organizations with interests in particular legislation, and they want to hire you for your expertise as a legislator. As you might imagine, that can be a problem, especially since the rules of financial disclosure for legislators allows them a fair bit of leeway in describing how they earn their money. To me, the answer is to recognize that being a legislator is a fulltime job regardless of how much the Lege is actually in session, and pay legislators a salary that recognizes this. Once you do that, you can very strictly limit the amount of things for which they can be paid outside of their legislative duties, and ensure there are sufficient punishments for breaking those rules. I don’t expect anything like this to happen any time soon, but until then I don’t think we have much grounds to complain about what these folks do, or think they have to do, to earn a living.
And the compensation issue is the bigger issue, as far as conflict of interest and corruption issues are concerned, then how much time they spend in session.
I debunked the the myth of the citizen legislator in Texas several years back, A Texas Myth: The Citizen Legislator. Here’s an excerpt:
While legislators do make more than the $7,200 annual salary it’s still not a lot of money. While these two reasons are why many believe in the citizen legislator myth, it is also exactly why very few citizens can actually run for and serve in the legislature in modern day Texas. The word citizen, as used in this context infers the common person. But in reality only those who are independently wealthy or whose job allows them the time off for the legislative session can afford to run for, and serve, in the legislature. While the lore of a part-time “citizen legislature” that meets every other year to blunt the effects of carpetbaggers makes a great tale, it is today little more than that.
But as the twenty-first century unfolds, the Legislature remains a curious combination of old-style politics, nineteenth century institutional design, and the realities of a state with 22 million people, many of whom live in or near some of the largest urban areas in the country.
That “curious combination” is now, quite possibly, causing more problems than it’s worth. There are several recent stories swirling around the Texas Legislature that point out structural weaknesses in how we fund it. Tales of “ghost workers”, spouses being paid with campaign funds, and legislators using campaign funds to pay off credit cards, are more the norm these days, than is the myth of the legislator coming for 140 days every two years and going back to the farm, ranch of general store. More often than not it’s the lawyer, insurance man, or consultant that can afford to be a legislator.
Although the regular session is still 140 days, there are many more special sessions these days and much more work to be done between sessions (interim). In the interim now there are many committee hearings that do the work, as set out by the leaders of both houses, that needs to be done to get ready for the next regular session. Often times these hearings are held not just in Austin, but all over the state, and over a span of many months. Again this schedule is not very conducive for a “citizen” working at a 40 hr./week or more job, 5 days a week, with a couple of weeks vacation a year.
A citizen legislator in the 21st century would be someone who is not beholden to monied interests, lobbyists, or their employer for them to be able to continue to support themselves and their families in order to keep serving in the legislature.
One thing is clear with the current part time pay legislature is that we don’t have citizens legislators. But even worse we don’t have legislators that are responsive to their constituents – the citizens of Texas. That’s what needs to change. Pay them well, limit outside pay, and institute harsh punishments for breaking the rules, as Kuff said. This kind of reform should be given serious consideration, but it won’t until citizens demand it.