Longer legislative sessions often mean more debt

ONLY A BILL: Fifteen percent of these guys become law in the Mississippi Legislature.

By Steve Wilson | Mississippi Watchdog

While an idle mind might be the devil’s workshop, a state Legislature with more time in session could pose similar dangers.

Several of the states with no limits on legislative sessions, or with longer sessions, rank among the top 10 in total debt, according to State Budget Solutions’ annual report on state debt. It’s no coincidence Mississippi’s session length and total debt load fall mid-pack.

Numbers provided by Joe Luppino-Esposito, an editor and author at State Budget Solutions, show a relationship between the two. He listed the top 10 states in per-capita debt and added respective data on the length, in calendar days, of their respective legislative sessions.

  1. Alaska — 90 days
  2. Hawaii — 60 legislative days
  3. Connecticut — In an odd year, the session has to end after the first Monday in June — 107 legislative days, assuming weekday work only. In even years, it ends after the first Monday in May (86 legislative days)
  4. Ohio — no limits
  5. Illinois — no limits
  6. New Jersey — no limits
  7. New Mexico — Odd year sessions are 60 days, and even years are 30.
  8. Oregon — 160 days in an odd year and 35 in even years.
  9. California — In odd years, no limits, and in even years until Nov. 30, according to the state constitution. According to chamber rules, the session is supposed to end Sept. 12 in odd years; Aug. 31 in even years.
  10. New York — no limits

According to the list, all of the states with no limits on legislative sessions, or sessions that stretch for more than 150 days, are represented in the top-10 rankings for total state debt. They are, in order: California (first), New York (second), Illinois (fourth), Ohio (fifth) and New Jersey (sixth). Third-ranked Texas has a $344 billion debt and a session that lasts 140 calendar days.

Luppino-Esposito cautions against drawing premature conclusions from the data, which, he said, might be the subject of further research by State Budget Solutions in the future.

“Here, the problem is that we’re doing some apples and oranges comparison,” Luppino-Esposito said. “Some states use legislative days, while others use calendar days. Eleven states have no limits. This doesn’t necessarily mean these states will go into longer sessions.”

Mississippi, which has a 90-day legislative session — 125 days in the year after a gubernatorial election — is 26th in total debt ($54 billion) and 14th in per-capita state debt. That debt represents 54 percent of the gross state product.

In last year’s session of the Mississippi Legislature, 15 percent of the bills proposed in either the House or the Senate were passed into a law, according to numbers from the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.

According to Mike Lee, a history and political science instructor at Hinds Community College, that’s above average. The U.S. Congress’ bill passage rate varies from about 1 percent to 5 percent.

“Somewhere along the way in my studies I read that only about 3 percent of bills introduced in a legislative body actually become law,” Lee said.

One factor that plays a role in the high percentage of bills that became law is the Republican control of the House, Senate and the governor’s mansion, one of 23 states with a GOP trifecta.

In the session that ended in April, 2,654 bills were introduced, with 1,651 originating from the House; 1,003 from the Senate.

  • 397 were either signed into law or became law without the governor’s signature.
  • 12 percent of House bills became law, with 20 percent originating from the Senate did.

Are numbers a good judge of legislative effectiveness? Not according to Lee.

“I don’t think you can grade or rank a legislative body based on the number of bills that pass or the percentage of bills that do,” Lee said. “As with education, it is not an environment wherein work or success can be measured in units produced. Are there bad bills that die? Yes, as well as some good ones.”

Contact Steve Wilson at swilson@watchdog.org

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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