EDITORIAL: Legislative numbers

By NEMS Daily Journal

proposal remaining alive in the 2010 legislative session would allow serious consideration of downsizing the Mississippi Legislature, and it is a conversation worth having.
The Senate proposal would make a 10 percent reduction in legislative districts – to 110 from 122 in the House, and to 47 from 52 in the Senate.
The proposal isn’t radical. In fact, some would argue that it’s not a big enough reduction, but that will be hashed out as debate moves forward.
Mississippi’s legislative population has changed through the years, most recently in 1972 when the number of districts was cut from 189 to 174, inclusive of both chambers.
Our Legislature is larger than those of all of our neighboring states, all of which have larger populations except Arkansas, which is gaining on us.
The average legislative membership is 147 nationwide.
We agree with Sen. Terry Burton of Newton, chairman of the Elections Committee, that 2010 offers a good opportunity to consider the size of the Legislature, taking into account the redistricting that will be required after the 2010 Census and the probability that some incumbents will not seek re-election in 2011.
Large legislatures rise from a history of geographic isolation defined by poor transportation and communication. The transport and communication issues have been largely resolved. Highways are better than ever in our state’s history. Instant communication is available everywhere in Mississippi, as across the country.
While some citizens believe they are entitled to a virtually personal legislator, nothing is guaranteed about representation. All legislators stand every four years in our state. Districts are realigned every 10 years. Some legislators are moved from an old district to a new one. Voters move.
Many Mississippians probably would like a system like New Hampshire’s, which has 400 legislators, but their pay is only $200 every two years – about as close to a non-professional, common citizen legislative scheme as one can find.
We don’t think many Mississippi lawmakers or citizens considering running, given the precedent, would be willing to accept that kind of pay arrangement. Our legislators make $10,000 per year, plus monthly expenses of $1,500, per diem expenses during sessions, and a travel allowance. Some people think even that modest compensation for part-time work is too much.
An assessment should take into account how efficient a smaller Legislature might be, and how much less expensive it would be, if at all.
Some Mississippians, as well as some special interest groups nationwide, take the position that larger districts and fewer legislators dilute citizens’ access. We don’t necessarily agree.
The quality of representation is more likely to determine access and availability and responsiveness. A lazy legislator will limit access and direct accountability to citizens more than population or geographic dimensions.
It doesn’t appear that the smaller legislatures in our neighboring states are less responsive with their larger population districts.
It could be argued that fewer legislators in both chambers would diminish the influence of narrow geographic interests that don’t necessarily reflect the best priorities for governance.
In any case, a rigorous examination of legislative function, responsiveness and size in numbers is healthy and basic questioning in our system.