Missouri mulling downsized legislature

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Almost every legislature in the country is talking about cutting costs and services because of budget problems, but a few also are talking about downsizing themselves.

Lawmakers in about a half-dozen states, including Missouri, have proposed shrinking the number of legislators elected and thereby saving the office, staff and travel expenses each incurs.

“If we are asking the public to live with cuts, to live with higher taxes, if we’re asking state employees to sacrifice their jobs or their pay or benefits, then we need to lead by example,” said Rep. Linda Schofield, a Democrat in Connecticut, where a plan for cutting back legislative districts has been filed.

Similar ideas have gone nowhere in the past — and the odds are long against any passing this year — but they’re generating more attention in some states now because of the pressure on legislators to consider any possible economy. The proposals also are calling attention to the huge variations in the size of legislatures.

A measure in Missouri that calls for reducing the House from 163 seats to 103 has passed a Senate committee and been sent to the floor. A similar plan is pending in the House.

The proposals in Missouri are constitutional amendments and would require approval in a public vote. Most versions would avoid the sensitive matter of squeezing out current members by setting the effective date after the 2020 Census, by which time all serving lawmakers would have left because of term limits.

The Missouri Democratic Party next month plans to start collecting signatures for an initiative petition to put a measure on the 2012 ballot. And Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder — the state’s top-ranking GOP official — said he also supports downsizing. Officials estimate that eliminating 60 lawmakers would save Missouri about $4.7 million per year.

“The Legislature is large and bloated,” said Missouri Rep. Eric Burlison, a Republican.

In Pennsylvania, where there has been talk off and on about cutting down the nation’s second largest legislature, Speaker Sam Smith is recruiting co-sponsors for a plan to cut the House from 203 members to 153. Until the past couple years, Smith, a Republican, had opposed the idea. Smith now argues that reducing the House would make the chamber a more effective legislative body.

In Connecticut, Schofield said the idea of cutting lawmakers is popular with voters and that halving the 151-member House and 36-member Senate would save more than $7 million. A rival proposal in the Senate would consolidate the body into a single-chamber unicameral legislature.

Elsewhere, downsizing measures have been proposed in Minnesota, Maine, Wisconsin and Kansas.

Across the country, the size of a state has little to do with the size of its legislature.

New Hampshire has the most lawmakers with 424 — of which 400 serve in the House. That amounts to one House member for about every 3,300 people. The nation’s most populous state, California, has 120 legislators. Nebraska, which has the only unicameral legislature, has the fewest with 49.

In addition to saving money, some proponents of downsizing argue that smaller legislatures would work more efficiently. But the measures face major obstacles, including many members’ reluctance to make getting elected harder, rural areas’ fear of losing political clout and the difficulty of passing constitutional amendments. Voters generally must approve constitutional amendments, and in some states, lawmakers must approve a measure in successive years to get it on the ballot.

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