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Commentary: Part-time Legislature long past due

By   /   April 9, 2012  /   No Comments

By Kevin Binversie
 
Wisconsin is one of 10 states that run full-time Legislatures — eight hours per day, five days per week with exceptions for countless holidays, 132 elected men and women whose job it is to crank out new laws, refining a few old ones. Yet, walk through the state capitol these days and you’re more likely to run into a “Solidarity Singer” than a legislator.
 
Forty other states manage to operate with part-time Legislatures. Last week’s Milwaukee election was a sure sign that Wisconsin should consider joining them.
 
In Milwaukee, Spencer Coggs beat Tim Carpenter by a little more than 800 votes for the honor of serving as Milwaukee’s city treasurer. What made their campaigns noteworthy was this fact: Both candidates were running campaigns while serving as full-time state legislators.
 
I’ll say that again: “full-time state legislators.”
 
Based on that factoid, it’s probably fair to conclude that the workload of our “full-time” state legislators is not so burdensome that it precludes running a full-time campaign.
 
At least one state lawmaker agrees it’s time the Legislature — or at least parts of it — go part time: Rep. Bob Ziegelbauer, of Manitowoc. (Disclaimer: Ziegelbauer is also my cousin.)
 
The Assembly’s only Independent, Ziegelbauer recently announced he would not run for re-election for the 25th Assembly District he has represented since 1993, but will remain in his other full-time job, that of county executive of Manitowoc County, a post he has held since 2006.
 
How, I asked, has he managed to two full-time gigs?
 
“I’ve always considered (being a state legislator) a part-time, everyday job,” said Ziegelbauer.
 
Ziegelbauer, who received his undergraduate degree from Notre Dame before getting an MBA from the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, has never been a stranger to having two jobs. Prior to winning his election to country executive, he owned and operated “Dr. Freud’s,” a record store in downtown Manitowoc, which specializes in selling the music of artists not commonly found in traditional big box stores like Walmart and mall stores like “FYE.”
 
Ziegelbauer’s perspective on the part-time Legislature is nuanced. He believes it’s possible that “state senators, who cover three times the constituents as representatives,” might well need to be on the job full time.
 
But for the rest of them? Part time is just fine.
 
“The technology available now — phones, computers, Internet and so on — is really what makes that possible in our modern society,” he said. “Infrequent meeting schedules mean legislators have less and less need to be physically present in the state capitol on a day-to-day basis when they can easily be more responsive to constituents by being ‘at home,’ and being able to be ‘virtually present’ at the capitol on a moment’s notice when necessary and daily in contact with staff.”
 
I’m not suggesting Wisconsin shift to a part-time Legislature, because it would save the cash we pay out in salaries. In fairness to our part-time legislators, they’re already — and only — paid to perform part-time work. According to the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau, the annual average salary before benefits for a state legislator in the 2011-13 session, representative or senator, is $49,943. By comparison, as Milwaukee city treasurer, Coggs will now pull down an annual salary of $114,040.
 
Their modest salaries are the result of a budget deal nearly 40 years ago. Until 1973, elected representatives were given either small compensation amounts monthly or based on how many times they met during a given year. But that year, legislators waved a magic wand over themselves and became full time.
 
Ever-frugal Midwesterners, they crafted a formula that said legislative salaries could not exceed 65 percent of the average annual salary for an “executive state employee requiring similar duties and responsibilities” — in essence, a senior-level political appointee. Since then, this formula drove legislative salaries from $9,900 annually to today’s aristocratic $49,943. Adjusted for inflation, the salary hasn’t actually changed much.
 
Does the legislative schedule — set by the Legislature itself — warrant any legislator being full time?
 
According to Ziegelbauer, it depends on the schedule they keep from the assignments they have.
“Some assignments (like being on the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee in a budget year) can seem like that sometimes,” said Ziegelbauer, “but in reality, except for the party leadership, that kind of schedule is fairly rare.”
 
And it’s rarer still now that the legislative session is wrapped up and campaign season is in full swing for November. The only full-time job many legislators are doing for the rest of the year is campaigning, some for even higher office like Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, who is running for the U.S. Senate and Madison-area Democratic state representatives Mark Pocan and Kelda Roys each running for Congress.
 
The Founders believed the point of public service was for Americans to serve as “citizen-legislators,” who held their offices for a short time and then returned to their regular lives and their regular jobs. By having a “full-time Legislature,” Wisconsin isn’t creating a class of “citizen-legislators,” it’s creating a professional political class more often concerned about playing political games, seeking out even higher office for itself, and finding ways to make life miserable for the rest of us.
 
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a full-time disaster to me.
 
Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native who has been blogging on the state’s political culture for more than eight years. He has served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, worked at the Heritage Foundation and has worked on numerous Wisconsin Republican campaigns in various capacities, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at kevin.binversie@franklincenterhq.org.

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