By NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – A bill to reduce the size of the Mississippi Legislature is expected to be considered by the full Senate in the coming weeks.
The legislation was passed last week out of the Senate Elections Committee.
“At least we are discussing it as we talk about mergers, as we talk about efficiency of services, as we talk about making government operate outside the usual mode of operations,” said Senate Elections Committee Chair Terry Burton, R-Newton. “I don’t even know if it will get out of the Senate.”
Because of the current unprecedented downturn in state revenue collections, state officials have been discussing the possibilities of school district consolidation, university mergers and the closing of mental health hospitals. All areas of government are expected to face cutbacks.
Bills are filed almost every session to reduce the size of the Mississippi Legislature, and they normally do not make it out of committee.
In the early 1990s, the Senate passed a bill to reduce the size of the Legislature. It died in the House. Also, in the early 1990s, then-Lt. Gov. Eddie Briggs tried unsuccessfully to gather enough signature through the initiative process to have the issue placed on the ballot.
Average size: 147
Mississippi has 52 state senators and 122 House members. That is more than the contiguous states, which have about 100 legislators.
The size of the nation’s legislatures varies widely from state to state. For instance, the New Hampshire House, with a little more than 1 million people, has 400 members.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures Web site, the average size of state legislatures is 147 members – compared to 174 in Mississippi.
Since 1960, according to the Web site, 19 states have reduced the size of their legislatures, including Mississippi. In 1972, the Mississippi Legislature went from 189 to its current 174 members.
The legislation that passed out of the Senate Elections Committee this year would reduce the size of the Legislature by 10 percent – from 122 to 110 in the House and from 52 to 47 in the Senate.
Burton said now would be an idea time to tackle the – not only because of potential savings during tough budget times, but also because next year the legislative districts must be redrawn to accommodate populations shifts determined by the census this year.
Burton said 10 percent of the membership in each chamber probably would not seek re-election. Thus, the reduction could be made without hurting any particular member.
The bill cutting the size of the Legislature was filed by Sen. Walter Michel, R-Jackson and called for a 25 percent reduction. In the Elections Committee, Sen. Billy Hewes, R-Gulfport, successfully lowered it to 10 percent.
He chose that amount, he said, because he participated in a Mississippi Economic Council mock constitutional convention in the early 1990s where reducing the size of the Legislature was discussed.
At that event, he said, it was a consensus “that we don’t want it to be so significant that we lose the ability to have easy access to our representatives and not so large that we have to consider going to a full-time Legislature.”
A Mississippi Senate district is composed of about 54,700 people while a House district is made up of about 23,300, based on the 2000 census.
In California, a senator represents more than 846,700 people while a House member represents almost 423,400 constituents, based on the 2000 census. On the flip side is Vermont where the average size of a Senate district is 20,200 and the House districts average about 4,050.
Mississippi House Apportionment and Elections Chair Tommy Reynolds, D-Water Valley, said he will consider the legislation if it reaches his committee.
But, he added, “I want to make sure rural areas and small towns continue to have representation.”
Burton estimates that the state could save between $2 million and $3 million by reducing the size of the Legislature.
But Reynolds said enacting the plan could cost much more than that. And legislators representing more people might have to make additional trips to Jackson, adding further expense.
Currently, legislators make $10,000 for the regular session and $1,500 per month out of session. They also receive pay for a limited number of trips to the Capitol out of session.
Legislation has been filed by Sen. Giles Ward, R-Louisville, to reduce the size of the Legislature by 10 percent. That bill has yet to come out of committee.