Shrinking the Size of State Legislatures

Advocates of smaller government might have an opportunity to reduce the number of seats in state legislatures, but such proposals face a challenging path to enactment.
by | March 9, 2011

It happens every 10 years: After the Census is completed and redistricting begins, some legislators go a step further and actually seek to shrink the size of their legislature.

Proposals to reduce the number of legislative seats in at least one chamber have so far been offered in Connecticut, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska and Pennsylvania, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

Such a move would not be unprecedented. Over 30 years ago, Massachusetts and Illinois approved significant reductions to their legislatures. Since the start of the 1990s, a few states have tweaked the size of at least one of their chambers, and in 2002, Rhode Island reduced its seats by one-quarter, eight years after voters first approved the move.

Given many states' record budgetary shortfalls, advocates of smaller government might have an opportunity to tap into anti-politician sentiment and save money on legislative salaries and expenses. But overall, legislative shrinkage proposals face a challenging path to enactment. Most voters don't rate procedural and structural matters near the top of their agenda, and the savings are often modest, especially in states with part-time legislatures.

"It's like redistricting," says Tim Storey, a political analyst with NCSL. "There's tremendous internal attention, but it doesn't necessarily ring a bell for average voters."

That internal attention is usually negative, with lawmakers fearing the loss of seats or being forced to incumbent-vs.-incumbent contests. Often, such proposals have died a quiet death in committee, bottled up by skeptical lawmakers. In Connecticut, Democratic state Rep. Linda Schofield has proposed cutting the size of the Democratic-dominated General Assembly in half, but there's "not a chance in hell of its passing, because no sitting legislator would want to put his or her seat in jeopardy," says Ron Schurin, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut.

Of all the proposals now on the table, Pennsylvania's may have the most traction. Republican House Speaker Sam Smith introduced a constitutional amendement to cut 50 seats from the House (from 203 to 153). "I believe a smaller House of Representatives is a more effective body," Smith wrote in a memo to fellow legislators. "And I think effectiveness is most desirable to the people of this Commonwealth."

Of late, Pennsylvania voters have gone through successive waves of irritation with their legislators, starting with disgust over a 2005 pay raise and continuing through a series of corruption probes. The Pennsylvania Legislature is also the largest full-time chamber in the nation, with a long history of offering generous per diems. This backdrop, combined with the support of the newly installed Speaker, could give the proposal a leg up.

But even in Pennsylvania, the constitutional amendment -- which would have to be approved by both chambers in consecutive legislative sessions, and then passed by the voters -- is far from a done deal, say political analysts in the state.

"The size of the Pennsylvania House is a recurring political issue in the state, but it never really rises far on the agenda in Harrisburg," says Christopher Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. He says that a number of representatives have taken up the issue over the last decade, but the issue doesn't proceed further than press conferences and general discussion. While the current fiscal crisis "might be a nice leverage point to reintroduce this option," Borick says, "I doubt that the public is invested enough in the concept to overcome the built-in opposition that you will find from legislators who don't want to see their seats vanish."

Kirk Holman, a one-time Republican official in western Pennsylvania agrees. While "the 'good government' types, the fiscal conservatives and much of the public think it is too big," Holman says, "moving from having those people think it is too big to actually forming a constituency in the state Legislature is another thing totally."

Still, history offers precedents in which scandals precipitated successful efforts to downsize a legislative chamber. The reduction in the Illinois House from 177 to 118, passed in 1980, followed a controversial lame-duck pay raise that legislators passed and that then-Gov. James Thompson, a Republican, halfheartedly vetoed before being overridden. A little known activist, Pat Quinn (now the Illinois governor), amassed hundreds of thousands of signatures to put an amendment on the ballot. It passed overwhelmingly.

Meanwhile, the 2002 legislative shrinkage in Rhode Island -- which was balanced by a pay increase from $300 to $10,000 -- followed a banking crisis, scandals involving legislators and public frustration about special pension deals. The business community, the clergy and good-government advocates all got behind the proposal. Though legislators fought it, even to the point of considering a repeal effort after it had passed, Rhode Islanders never looked back, says Lisa Pelosi, a former spokeswoman for. Lincoln Almond, Rhode Island's governor at the time. "I can't remember the last time I heard anyone complain or wish for a larger Legislature."

Political analysts in the half-dozen states that have the highest ratio of legislators per constituent agreed in interviews that voters aren't giving much thought to prioritizing legislative shrinkage.

The most extreme case is New Hampshire, a small state with a House that seats 400 members -- the fourth-largest English-speaking Legislature in the world after the English and Indian parliaments and the U.S. House of Representatives.

"We like our oversized, $100-a-year (per lawmaker) legislature," says Grant Bosse, lead investigator for the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy. "There's usually some talk every couple of years about changing the size of the House, but it would take a constitutional amendment, which requires a 60 percent vote of both houses and two-thirds of the voters. So it would be highly unlikely."

Other states with high legislator-to-constituent ratios have a separate issue: They are so large, and have such low-population densities, that shrinking the number of legislators would force ever-larger districts to be drawn. The bigger and more remote the district, the harder it is for one member to represent with any adequacy.

In North Dakota, for instance, the number of legislative districts was pared slightly in 1991 and 2001, but public support for further reductions isn't strong, says Public Service Commissioner Kevin Cramer, a Republican.

"One of the major concerns out here in the tundra is the large geographic area covered by rural legislators," Cramer says. "Because of the miles between places, representation of small populations provide some sense of connection for people."

Voters in Kansas don't seem eager to downsize, either. Rural strength in the Legislature "has ebbed away for 40-plus years, and it continues," says University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis. "If we had fewer representatives, the districts would be huge geographically. There also remains a lot of romance about the rural nature of Kansas, even as we become more urbanized." With the current legislator-to-constituent ratios, Loomis added, "you really can get to know your legislator."

NCSL's Storey cautions that for all the advances of social media and the steady expansion of legislative staffs over the years, both lawmakers and constituents need to think carefully about the right balance between accessibility, accountability and costs.

"In the last 100 years, the U.S. population has roughly tripled, but the total number of legislative seats has remained essentially the same," Storey says. "The legislature is the people's body, the branch where people are able to access policymakers at the highest level." State legislators will need to determine what effects expanding or shrinking the legislature will do to the business of the state and to its citizens. "That's the real question that states have to grapple with," he says.

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