Although this has not been great year for the Red Sox, as the All-Star break approaches, I am a little sad to know that we are almost halfway through the baseball season. Unlike some who think that the games and the season are far too long, I wish it were even longer and that some sports (particularly professional basketball) were only played in alternate years.
The never-ending season is also an issue for the Rhode Island General Assembly. I bring this up not because Capitol TV impinges on my enjoyment of baseball, but because I think it’s a major roadblock to running for office. Much has been made of the fact that more than 40 of our 113 legislators will be unopposed this year, but the truth is that every year an enormous percentage of the seats are uncontested. While others might say that the “power of incumbency” scares off newcomers, I believe that the job hours and responsibilities are so completely out of whack with the pay and the benefits that the logistics of actually serving in the General Assembly are far more intimidating to a newcomer than campaigning against an entrenched incumbent.
The legislative session lasts about 24 or 25 weeks each year for three days a week. Even if very little business is being done on the floor of either Chamber, legislators have committee hearings and events to attend as well as constituent meetings, policy briefings and legislative work. Nights and weekends are often filled with must-attend events that include everything from fundraisers to community events. During the session, it is far more than a part-time job. Over the years I have closely observed the hours of several members and spoken with others who spend at least 20 hours a week during session on their General Assembly duties. Next year the pay will be $15,171.55 with health benefits.
While some people would like a $15,171.55 part-year job that comes with benefits, the truth is that for most Rhode Islanders, the General Assembly salary neither pays the bills nor allows a person to have a traditional nine-to-five job. And let’s be honest: we need highly-qualified people to serve and many of the most qualified are not attracted by this salary level — or even triple it — so we are not going to get more candidates to run even with significantly higher compensation. I know one legislator who takes his vacation time in hourly increments to attend session so he can keep his day job, but I am certain he runs out of vacation time long before the end of session. Despite the focus on legislative salaries, people serve because they want to and real the challenge to getting more people is not about money, it’s about time.
Thankfully there are 49 other states with similar challenges that we can look to for solutions. While some states like California and Pennsylvania have full-time legislatures and pay their legislators full-time salaries, other states like Texas, Florida and Kentucky limit the length and frequency of their legislative sessions. In Kentucky, session is limited to 30 days in odd numbered years and 60 days in even years. Texas’ legislature only meets every other year and Florida’s is limited to 60 day sessions every year. These are states with far bigger budgets and many more residents but much tighter legislative sessions. It should also be noted that no other state has an official state appetizer, so I suspect that the shorter legislative session does not allow for discussion of truly trivial matters as they wrestle with real policy issues and challenges. Perhaps Rhode Island would do better with a two-year budget addressed in a 60-day session in even years and a 30-day session in odd years for everything else.
Bottom line: before assuming that apathy and a fear of incumbency prevents people from running, we should take a long hard look at the job we are asking folks to take on and think about whether we’d want to do it ourselves. If the answer is “heck no” perhaps it’s time to shorten the season.
Cara Cromwell is a public affairs consultant with more than twenty years experience managing issues campaigns for corporations, non-profits, associations, coalitions and candidates on both sides of the aisle. Visit her blog, Straight Up The Middle, at straightupthemiddle.blogspot.com and follow her on Twitter @cmcromwell.