by George Wolcott
Earlier this month, the Montana Legislative Council gathered in Bozeman for one of its periodic meetings during the Legislative interim. With November’s Special Session closed and many important conversations in the national politics raging, the legislative branch’s governing body had a lot to talk about. Topics for the agenda included sexual harassment training for legislators, the preservation of email to comply with public records laws, and how much Montana’s legislators are compensated for their work in the Legislature. Though none of these issues could be called inconsequential, the question of legislator pay took a surprising turn with the potential to fundamentally alter Montana’s politics. Among the plans presented to the Council to finance a theoretical pay raise was the idea to reduce the legislature’s size and redistribute the savings in pay among the remaining members.
Specifically, the Council examined a proposal to reduce the number of Senate districts from 50 to 40 and thereby cut the House from 100 members to 80. This change would fund a 65% increase in legislator salary (during the 90-day session every 2 years) and per diem (during the interim period). While such a change seems a little far-fetched at first, the Legislature’s Republican members were enthusiastic about the idea and Democrats seemed to at least be open to looking into it further. The feasibility of such a proposal only grows when you consider that the 2020 census and subsequent reapportionment looms on the horizon, giving an opening for new, larger districts to be drawn to implement the change.
To begin, I want to be clear: how much our legislators get compensated is a legitimate topic of discussion and can impact what sorts of people are able to consider running for office as well as the quality of legislation they produce when they do get elected. With that said, these proposals concern me for several reasons.
First of all, I think the timing of the discussion couldn’t be worse. Little more than a month ago, the Governor had to call legislators back to the capitol to handle deep shortfalls in state revenue that threatened to gut the state’s social programs. This session ended up largely rejecting the Governor’s proposals to modestly and temporarily raise certain taxes and instead cemented cuts to state government, encouraged the Governor to renew a contract with a private prison corporation with a history of human rights abuses, and tried to force furloughs for state workers. At every turn, Republicans in the Legislature seemed to argue that the state’s budget woes were largely the fault of a bloated state government filled with overpaid workers and these painful steps would be unnecessary if Governor Bullock would just “cut the Helena fat.”
Ultimately, the session found solutions when people and organizations from across the state stood up and offered their pound of flesh for the greater good. While key legislators on both sides of the aisle worked tirelessly to make deals and protect millions of dollars in cuts that were averted, I (and I’ll venture to guess many others) walked away from the ordeal disappointed with the degree to which some tried to make this anyone’s problem but theirs. With Montanans beginning to feel the pain of the cuts and the condemnation of civil servants ringing in my ears, it’s hard not to see this in that narrative. While the services Montanans have come to expect are luxuries we cannot afford right now, the Legislature seems very open to raising its pay.
My next concern is maybe a little less political and more philosophical. I think any discussion about our Legislature–be it how many seats compose it, what sort of people fill those seats, or how much they end up being paid to do so–needs to be guided by the principle that the Legislature is a representative body. Insofar as legislator pay and benefits impact the ability to elect good representatives in our state legislature, it’s worth considering a bigger investment. However, reducing the size of the legislature undermines that goal.
As far as representation goes, for as much as the current Legislature can frustrate me at times (okay… most of the time), I think it does a pretty good job. With a 100 Representatives and a population of just over a million, each member of the House represents a little under 10,500 people. Each Senator represents almost 20,100. While this makes Montana’s legislature unusually large for its population (a member of the California’s 80-seat State Assembly represents almost 500,000 people!), I argue it’s not just a good thing, it’s something worth guarding jealously.
Smaller districts vastly increase the chances of actually knowing your legislator, or at least knowing someone who does, and that in turn makes them more accessible. It also increases the likelihood that the district encompasses a single, distinct community with similar needs and concerns. To illustrate, the House district I live in now encompasses only a portion of the city of Helena and the people that live with me in it live in somewhat similar conditions and have similar concerns. I compare that to the district I grew up in back in Idaho, a state with a much smaller state legislature than Montana, encompassed two entire counties. When rural, more conservative voters did not turn out in full force, the more left-leaning concerns of the district’s only city, a university town, dictated the views of the legislators elected. On the other hand, when the county did turn out in force and the “urban” voters stayed home, the city’s concerns were often left on the wayside.
Within reason, Montanans’ deserve to have legislators that represent them and no community should have another, larger community force a legislator on them simply because they happened to be grouped together. While this is idealistic and likely not totally attainable, it is a goal to reach for and it’s one that a smaller legislature with larger districts endangers.
The Legislative Council is still considering this idea and even if it ends up behind it, legislation will have to be approved in 2019 to make it happen. We should all be watching our representatives closely and make sure that decisions as consequential as this are not made without our consent.
George Wolcott was raised on the other side of the hills in Idaho’s Palouse Country. He currently lives in Helena where he is a senior at Carroll College. His interest in the issues facing rural America and preserving our open spaces makes him passionate about and active in Montana politics.