ANNAPOLIS — Within the first 15 days of the 2002 legislative session, the General Assembly Compensation Commission will submit a report that could redefine the General Assembly of the 21st century.
The report will recommend raising state legislators’ salaries incrementally from $31,509 to $43,500 by 2006.
The raise reflects changes in the cost of living, the amount of time required for the job and the goal of ensuring that the General Assembly continues to attract qualified lawmakers, said S. Nelson Weeks, chairman of the commission.
The commission’s recommendation could also allow more senators and delegates to make lawmaking their only occupation. The impact of their decision, short of a de facto call for a full-time legislature, could deal another blow to the increasingly mythical citizen legislature, which emphasizes the real world experience brought in by lawmakers who work outside the Legislature.
But, with the increased responsibilities of state governments, there is simply more work to be done, and as Delegate Joan Pitkin, D-Prince George’s, said, “Life’s just more complex.”
As legislative salaries move closer to compensation for full-time jobs and many legislators say they are working year-round, most still oppose switching to a full-time legislature.
“No way,” said Sen. Walter Baker, D-Cecil. “Half of the problems are out on the street, not in Annapolis.”
Many legislators, like Baker, insist that they do not need more than 90 days to take care of the state’s business.
Delegate Joseph Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s, breaks down the session this way: the first 30 days are easy, the second 30 days are harder, and the final 30 days are “terrible.”
“It’s not getting any easier,” said Vallario, a member of the House of Delegates since 1975 and a working lawyer all the while. “It’s requiring a lot more time, but with experience, having seen many of the bills before, you can use your time more efficiently.”
“I favor keeping it the way it is.”
There are nine states in the country with full-time legislatures, said Brenda Erickson of the National Conference of State Legislatures. There are also a handful that only convene every other year.
Most meet annually, for less than six months, like Maryland.
“Full-time legislators can be so far removed from the real world,” said Delegate Wade Kach, R-Baltimore County. “We benefit from the fact that we’re here 90 days and spend the rest in the real world.”
The idea of a full-time legislature cycles through the General Assembly every few years, lawmakers say, but the support is limited and the resistance influential.
“It’s truly a citizen legislature,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, the longest-serving Senate president in state history, who is also perhaps the concept’s strongest defender. “Hopefully we can keep it that way for a while.”
But, some State House observers say Miller’s citizen legislature is already disappearing.
“The citizen legislature is becoming a myth,” said Blair Lee, a political commentator and former lobbyist for Montgomery County. “To be effective in Annapolis you have to work 10 months of the year and nobody wants you for the other two.”
“Anyone who thinks that Maryland legislators only work during the 90-day session is severely misinformed,” said Paul Herrnson, University of Maryland professor of government and politics and director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship. He favors a full-time legislature.
Three or four years ago, full-time public official became the No. 1 occupation of members of the General Assembly, Lee said. “How scary is that?”
When legislators are asked to describe themselves as full-time or part- time, the numbers are different, said John Rixey, staff for the Compensation Commission.
In 1988, 47 of 188 legislators described themselves as full-time, Rixey said. In 2001, only 38 described themselves that way.
The difference is that Rixey’s numbers only count legislators who consider their General Assembly seats as their full-time job, while Lee includes people who have made careers of public service, perhaps at other levels of government, rather than keeping one foot in the private sector.
There are fewer lawyers, teachers and farmers in the legislature, Rixey said. The growing occupation groups are in government social work, health services and non-profits.
“The notion of the citizen legislature is garbage, it’s rhetoric,” Herrnson said. “We’re all citizens.”
“The whole idea of the citizen legislature is deceiving,” he said. “Members of full-time legislatures spend as much time in their districts courting constituents as part-time legislators.”
That is the case for Sen. Donald Munson, R-Washington, a full-time legislator for all 26 of his years in the General Assembly.
“I’m not extremely enthusiastic about the citizen legislature,” he said.
When he first ran for office, Munson said he made a commitment to his constituents to work full-time for their interests, and with his constituent caseload he dismisses any suggestion that he does not have an understanding of the “real world.”
“I think the mix of full-time and part-time legislators we have now is healthy,” he said, adding that he knows legislators in Pennsylvania’s full-time Legislature who are just as in tune with their constituents as the part-time legislators in Maryland.
As one of the few proponents of a full-time legislature, Delegate Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, said when she raised the idea after moving from Michigan, where she worked as staff in the state’s full-time governing body, she met “huge resistance.”
Hixson said it worked great in Michigan, but thinks most of her colleagues are opposed to the cost of running a legislature year-round.
Part of that cost would be compensating legislators for their work throughout the year.
“There are very few people who can afford to run for office, make $31,000 a year and take 90 days off from their other jobs,” Herrnson said. “It would be better if we paid a fair wage.”