Why Our Legislative Session Is Far Too Long

OR, WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THESE GUYS STICK AROUND TOO LONG?

We’re sometimes asked: Where’s the harm in the fact that South Carolina has a longer legislative session than most other states have? Sure, the per diem expenses will be a little higher, but will forcing legislators to wrap things up a little more quickly really stop them from passing egregious bills, blowing state money on superfluous programs, and generally squandering taxpayer resources?

Of course not.

But hold on. Let’s not dismiss the point that longer sessions mean more and higher expenses. As The Nerve documented two years ago, the legislature’s generous reimbursements system is hardly an insignificant expense: it includes daily $131 “subsistence” payments for hotels and meals while on official business; $35 in per diem payments for meetings on non-session days; and mileage reimbursements of at least 44.5 cents per mile for House members and 50 cents per mile for senators. (And as The Nerve revealed last year, lawmakers take full advantage of those perquisites – even the ones who live within a half-hour drive of the State House.)

In any case, it’s sufficiently clear that state lawmakers simply don’t need to spend almost half the calendar year in Columbia – or even longer when, as often happens, they sign a sine die resolution allowing the General Assembly to reconvene for stated purposes (to finish the budget, for example, or to attend to some crisis at a state agency). Specifically, the South Carolina legislature sits for five months, 21 weeks, or 143 calendar days. By comparison, in 2010 Virginia’s General Assembly sat for only 46 days, Mississippi’s for only 45 days, and Arkansas’ for only 45 days. (See SCPC’s 2010 report  and fact sheet on session length.)

So, what do lawmakers do with all that extra time? First and most obviously, they spend time on silly things. Visit the gallery of the South Carolina House or Senate on any day of session, and you’ll likely hear lawmakers intermittently proposing resolutions – resolutions congratulating high school basketball teams on victories, memorializing Congress, naming roads after noteworthy people (frequently themselves), and creating more state symbols. During the 2012 legislative session, lawmakers proposed 1,656 of these insignificant gestures. As if to prove their insignificance, all but 38 passed.

But while these gestures may be insignificant themselves, they do have a purpose: though not an entirely admirable one. Frequently when they come up, the uninitiated visitor will have the distinct impression that members are simply campaigning from the chamber floor. When, for example, a resolution is read to recognize a certain town, “its citizens, and town officials for a vision that has produced past and continued efforts to protect the history, culture, and natural resources of the community,” etc., etc., a delegation from that town will be in the gallery, listening to their representative praise them and their work. Similarly, when the Senate clerk reads a resolution  to “celebrate the occasion of the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the town of Lexington and to congratulate and commend Mayor Randy Halfacre and the citizens of Lexington,” it’s hard not to conclude that senators from Lexington are simply politicking.

But that’s not the worst part about long sessions.

The worst part is this: The more time lawmakers spend in the environs of the State House, the more time they spend with lobbyists, consultants, and various other favor-seekers whose job it is to persuade lawmakers to fashion legislation according to the interests of their employers. Not long ago we discussed a sales tax reform bill that, when introduced, would have cut exemptions and lowered the state sales tax rate commensurately; the longer it sat in the Senate Finance committee, however, the more exemptions were put back into the bill; so that by the time the bill reached the Senate floor, virtually all the old exemptions were reentered – as were a couple of new ones! Senators had spent enough time with the favor-seekers to convince them that the favor-seekers’ employers needed those exemptions after all.

Or take the state budget. Have you ever wondered why every year, virtually without exception, the budget is larger – often much larger – when it’s ratified than when it began? Why is that? If lawmakers were really arguing about what should and shouldn’t be in the budget, presumably the number would go up sometimes and down sometimes. But it doesn’t, because in reality what’s happening is that individual lawmakers – with all that extra time – are finding more and more favors to pass along to lobbyist-represented special interests.

What, exactly, can be done?

At 21 weeks, South Carolina has the second longest session in the Southeast and the 14th longest in the country. Excluding the nation’s 10 full-time, professional legislatures, South Carolina has the longest session in the country as measured by months and the 7th longest session as measured by weeks. By comparison, the median length of session for state legislatures is 16 weeks. Thus, South Carolina’s session is more than a month longer than in most states.

There are essentially three ways to tackle the problem:

  • Require sessions to end by 5 p.m. on the second Friday in April – making each session last roughly 90 calendar days.
  • Cap session at no more than 45 legislative days within the above calendar limit.
  • Keep the current January-to-June session, but make it biennial – every other year. That would not only save taxpayer dollars and limit the influence of lobbyists – it would force legislators to take a longer view on important budgetary decisions.

None of these reforms would solve the problems referenced above. But each would make it substantially more difficult for lawmakers to fill the law code and state budget with taxpayer-funded favors for special interests.

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