Perspective: Downsizing Missouri House not a cost-effective strategy
Sunday, March 20, 2011
Less government isn’t synonymous with reduced representation. Missouri lawmakers this session are considering three measures to downsize the membership of the House of Representatives from 163 seats to 103. The Senate would retain its existing 34 seats.
One fiscal note suggests the change could save the state $4.7 million a year. The reduction proposals raise the question: Is the size of the House too big or about right? The response likely will depend on whether emphasis is placed on governance, expense or representation.
Let’s explore each consideration.
• Will government be leaner? The question is arguable. Much of the bulk of government radiates from executive branch agencies, policies, regulations, etc.
Representatives have relatively small staffs, including part-time help to assist only when the Legislature is in session.
A lawmaker’s contribution to bigger government largely derives from making new laws that require more state workers to implement, monitor, enforce, etc.
Reducing the number of representatives, however, would not necessarily reduce the number of laws introduced or approved.
• Will expenses be reduced? Probably, but not dramatically.
House members representing more constituents and serving on more committees likely would require larger staffs, which would offset some of the savings realized by downsizing.
The most significant savings would come from reducing by 60 the per diem paid during the legislative session.
• Will representation be diluted? Absolutely.
According to 2010 Census calculations supplied by House Information, districts are expected to serve 36,724 people after redistricting. If the number of districts is reduced to 103, each would serve 58,145 people.
Jefferson City’s two representatives in the House offer different reactions to the proposal.
Rep. Mike Bernskoetter, a Republican who represents the 113th District, said he wouldn’t be opposed to the measure.
“As a businessman, I know I don’t need 162 people to agree with me to get something done,” he said.
In the 114th District, Republican Rep. Jay Barnes called the proposal “a terrible idea.”
“One reason Missouri has 114 counties — fifth highest in the nation — is because Missourians distrust big governments and organizations. We like local representation,” Barnes said. “As it is now, I can knock on every door in my district. I can’t do that if the districts are enlarged.”
He disputed claims the reduction will save money because representatives will need larger staffs to keep up with the workload. And he said reducing the number of districts will reduce diversity — not only in terms of race and ethnicity, but in occupations and life experiences.
Although three of the four bills — three in the House, one in the Senate — recommending the changes were filed by Republicans, Barnes also sees a political component and believes Democratic support for the proposal is an attempt to dilute the Republican majority.
“Don’t tell me, after all these years, the Democrats finally have found religion on smaller government,” he said.
We don’t share Barnes’ characterization of the idea as terrible, but we do have serious misgivings — chief among them the dilution of representation.
His observation about Missourians’ preference for local representation is on target.
The reason is simple — elected representatives can be more responsive to smaller constituencies.
Weighing cost savings versus dilution of representation, we’re not convinced downsizing the Missouri House of Representatives is cost effective.