States look to shrinking legislatures to save money

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2011 3:55 PM
States look to shrinking legislatures to save money

By Kevin Murphy

KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - State. Rep. Eric Burlison of Missouri thinks government is a little too representative in his state.

Burlison is backing a bill that would slash the number of members of the Missouri House of Representatives to 103 from 163. Similar legislation to cut the number of lawmakers is pending in several states to cope with tight budgets.

Missouri state officials said the plan would save an estimated $4.7 million annually, mostly in salaries of lawmakers and staffs. The Missouri House is the fourth largest in the nation, yet the state ranks 18th in population.

"The data speaks for itself," Burlison said. "To me, this is the right thing to do."

Burlison said lawmakers do not need to serve geographically small districts to remain in close contact with constituents in an era of Twitter, Facebook and text-messaging.

Burlison's bill, which is pending in a House committee, keeps the state Senate at 34 seats. If approved, it would require a constitutional amendment passed by voters statewide.

A bill introduced in Kansas would reduce House membership to 90 from 125 and the Senate to 30 from 40. Connecticut lawmakers are weighing a bill slashing the House and Senate in half from current levels of 151 and 36, respectively.

In Pennsylvania, House Speaker Sam Smith will introduce a bill next week to cut the House to 153 from 203 members, spokesman Steve Miskin said.

Legislation to reduce the size of legislatures usually goes nowhere because it means lawmakers eliminating their own jobs, Burlison said. But Missouri has a term limit of eight years, partly why Burlison suggests the law take effect more than 10 years down the road.

Only five states have changed the size of their legislatures since 1990 and only two of those -- North Dakota and Rhode Island -- cut the number, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Three states increased them.

University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis is not so sure citizens, especially in rural areas, would support smaller legislatures that would expand geographic representation. In addition, some people may be comfortable with their legislator, he said.

"When push comes to shove, they may say "I kind of like knowing old Joe,'" Loomis said.

(Writing by Kevin Murphy; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Ellen Wulfhorst)