LeBeau hopes to renew debate on smaller legislature
While a new report shows Connecticut outspends most other states in terms of legislative costs, an East Hartford lawmaker hopes it will breathe a second life into his Quixotic bid to eliminate jobs by shrinking the General Assembly.
Sen. Gary LeBeau said that when the next regular session convenes in February he either will re-introduce his plan to eliminate one of the two legislative chambers, or offer a new proposal to reduce membership in both.
“People hate waste,” said LeBeau, a Democrat entering his 16th year in the Senate. “Everybody campaigns against it, but nobody does anything about it.”
The “waste” LeBeau is referring to lies within the $65.3 million Connecticut is budgeted to spend this year on its House, Senate, and both partisan and nonpartisan support services.
The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Research issued a report earlier this month comparing legislative spending across all states in 2009, when Connecticut’s legislative costs were slightly less at $60.5 million.
OLR analysts found Connecticut ranked ninth-highest in spending on a per capita basis. The $17.19 per person it spent on legislative functions was nearly double the national average of $9.54 per person. In terms of spending per legislator, Connecticut ranked 20th at $324,305.
It is difficult to rank legislative pay nationally, since some states award an annual salary, others pay based on time spent in session, and still others use a combination. But in terms of annual base salary, the $28,000 Connecticut legislators earned ranks 20th-highest according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Connecticut legislators also receive an annual stipend to cover unitemized expenses. Each of its 151 representatives receives $4,500 and each of 36 senators gets $5,500. Additional stipends are awarded to committee chairmen and other leaders to reflect additional responsibilities.
LeBeau first made the argument four years ago that Connecticut needed only one chamber with about 60 members.
“If you cut the number of legislators by two-thirds, it would be really hard to justify the current level of support staff,” LeBeau said. He quickly added that the current support network isn’t inefficient; the entire branch of government simply is too large.
Though only one state, Nebraska, currently features a unicameral legislature, LeBeau said he believes the otherwise national adherence to the two-chamber model stems from two factors: public misconceptions and political self-interest.
The latter, LeBeau said, is easy to understand. “It would mean there are fewer jobs for the politicians,” he said. “They don’t want that.”
And though he couldn’t cite any poll results on the subject here, he is confident Connecticut voters would endorse it. “”I think it would poll at 65, 70 percent or better,” LeBeau said. “People hear about it and they say ‘what a great idea.'”
The problem, he added, is that many voters are unaware of a crucial difference between state legislatures and the U.S. Congress.
Children learn early in elementary school of the “Connecticut Compromise,” a proposal offered by Nutmeg State delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that solved a crisis over the nature of Congress: seats in the national House of Representatives would be assigned to each state based on population, while every state would have two senators.
But not as many learn that since the landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Reynolds v. Sims, all state legislative chamber seats — both House and Senate — must be apportioned based on population.
“The Connecticut Compromise really isn’t needed in Connecticut,” LeBeau said.
Shifting to a unicameral legislature would mean re-writing the state Constitution, a process that would require approval both from the General Assembly and from the public at a future statewide election.
Legislative leaders recently re-wrote state legislative district maps to reflect population changes from the 2010 U.S. Census, and those will remain in effect for the next 10 years. LeBeau said any plan for a scaled-back legislature wouldn’t apply those changes for another decade.
So why raise the issue now?
“It’s the perfect time,” he said, noting that many of the legislators serving now will have ended their legislative careers by 2021. “It really takes the issue of self-interest out of the debate. It gives people time to adjust and time to plan.”
LeBeau received a public hearing on his proposal four years ago, and said he hopes that if there’s a second public airing next spring, it could develop into an issue in the 2012 statewide election.
Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, co-chairwoman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, didn’t rule out any possibilities Wednesday.
“The idea didn’t get a lot of traction the first time,” she said. “It would depend on what the committee thinks, but we tend to be pretty open.”
Slossberg added that despite LeBeau’s optimism about public support, her panel heard complaints four years ago from constituents worried that a unicameral system would leave them fewer legislators to bring their concerns to. “You do take representation further away from the people when they have less access to legislators,” she said.
LeBeau does have an ally in one former legislative leader who now chairs a state advisory panel that recommends compensation levels for elected officials and judges.
“I’d love to hear the debate on it,” said Bloomfield attorney Lewis Rome, who served as both majority and minority leader in the state Senate during the 1970s.
Rome said the current system sometimes allows lawmakers to avoid taking stands on key issues. For example, if a senator from one town kills a popular bill, a representative from the same community who privately hoped for that result, might not take a public position.
“I think you would get greater responsibility,” Rome said. “I’d favor it.”
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