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How Efficient is Missouri's Legislature: a Look at the Five-Month Session

The House voted 109-46 Tuesday to override Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of Senate Bill 509. The Senate had voted 23-8 in favor on

Missouri’s lawmakers work five months out of the year—from January to May—because that’s how long the legislative session runs. But as KSMU’s Jennifer Davidson reports in this first half of our series on efficiency in state government, there have been calls to both shorten and lengthen that amount of time.

This week, state lawmakers are back in their home districts, settling back into their “normal” lives away from Jefferson City.  Unlike the federalgovernment, most state lawmakers across the country are only drafting legislation for part of the year.

One downside of that is who is able to become a state lawmaker. Phill Brooks is a journalist who has covered the statehouse in Jefferson City for three decades.

“There are some people who cannot serve in the Missouri General Assembly. That’s because they only meet five and a half months or so out of the year. They’re not getting a full-time salary,” Brooks said.

That means the only people who can become lawmakers are:  retired, self-employed, or those wealthy enough that they don’t need a full-time salary. Not only does that limit who can become a state lawmaker—it also leads to disproportionate groups of certain occupations, like farmers or lawyers, in Missouri’s General Assembly.

There have been calls to reduce the amount of time that legislators are in session, which would make it easier for people to take time off work to serve in the General Assembly.  Several states have setups where every other year, they alternate between a shorter and longer session.

The state Legislature could save more than $400,000 annually by shaving several weeks off its session, according to a financial estimate for a proposed constitutional amendment that didn’t make it to a vote this year.  That proposal would have shortened the length of Missouri's annual legislative session by ending it in late March instead of mid-May, beginning in 2015.

Sponsoring Sen. John Lamping, R-St. Louis County, said his main reason for proposing that change was to encourage lawmakers to be more efficient when they are meeting.

There have also been calls in the past to make the legislature a full-time body with a full-time salary, like with Congress. A few states have done that.

State Representative Shawn Rhoads is one of the few exceptions to the general rule in Missouri.  He took a leap of faith in quitting his job as a police officer to become a lawmaker, despite the part-time salary. He represents Howell County in south-central Missouri.

“Being in law enforcement, it’s hard to go back to work and have someone want to employ you for just seven months.  So right now, primarily, my job is just to be a legislator,” Rhoads said.

Between his part-time income as a lawmaker and his wife’s full-time job, their family is able to make it work.  But he acknowledges he’s in the minority.  He says the five-month session is a double-edged sword.

 “It seems to me that we are in a hurry, all the time, because of the shortened session. I’ve always kind of thought that if we had a longer session, you could take your time a little more, and be able to troubleshoot things a little farther than you get to now. But then the flip side of that is:  in five months, there were 1,500 bills. So, would seven months be 2,000 bills,” Rhoads asks.

Another thing to think about with a shorter session is that it may affect the balance of power between lawmakers and the governor’s office.  Again, Phill Brooks.

“This current governor, Jay Nixon, has concentrated a tremendous amount of power into the governor’s office. Administrative agencies are not being responsive to the legislature and enquiries. Department directors and agency experts are not regularly working with legislators. You rarely see a department director in the hallways of the state capitol building anymore,” Brooks said.

One downside to a longer session is obvious:  if lawmakers are in Jefferson City year-round, you end up getting professional politicians.  They have less time to spend in their districts talking with the people they represent, and if our full-time federal lawmakers in Washington, D.C. are any indication, they might not get much done at all.

So, if we’re going to stick with a shorter session, it’s up to lawmakers to make the most efficient use of their five short months in the Capitol. In the second half of our series, we’ll look at how we could use technology and some restructuring to do just that.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Davidson.