Cut Hours for Lawmakers

California and Michigan weighed proposals this year to turn their full-time legislatures into part-time ones. The idea is intriguing and, lately, I’ve become more convinced it’s something Wisconsin should consider, too.

It wouldn’t be hard to find support among voters for the change. While unemployment is on the rise and some workers are seeing their hours cut in order to avoid layoffs, most of Wisconsin’s 132 lawmakers accepted a 5.3 percent pay raise earlier this year.

While it’s true the legislative pay hike isn’t as offensive as the bonuses garnered by the heads of failed banks and Wall Street investment firms, it’s still hard to stomach giving out a reward to a group who consistently fails to get the budget done on time. Their deadline for this go-round is June 30, so the clock is running.

Anyone who has observed the Legislature can attest that, most of the time, it is not a model of efficiency. Sessions scheduled to start at 10 a.m. sometimes don’t get going until the evening, with final votes delayed until the middle of the night. In many ways, the group resembles a group of college students cramming for an exam rather than a deliberative body of government.

Going part-time could raise the stakes and put pressure on legislators to act rather than posture. I believe that when you know you only have three months (or however long) to get something done, that’s about how long it usually takes. And a shorter legislative session would force lawmakers to focus on the issues that matter; there are plenty that get attention now that aren’t worth it.

The concept is not unheard of. Wisconsin is one of just ten states with a full-time legislature. That means being a lawmaker is considered eighty percent or more of a full-time job and comes with a larger staff and a salary that makes it possible to live without any outside job (though many members do have other employment).

The upside for voters is that with fewer days to spend inside the Capitol, legislators would get out into the real world. They would be free to spend more time in their districts—away from lobbyists and closed-door negotiations—talking to constituents and learning more about the problems people are facing as well as the true impact of their decisions.

And when they get back to Madison, they still might cram and wait until the last minute to finish their work, but at least they’ll have less time to waste.

Jenny Price is a Madison native who covered the state Capitol for the Associated Press and has written about Wisconsin politics since 1999. E-mail her at jenny.price@gmail.com.

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