by Andrew Crisp
Monday kicked off 2010's New Legislator Orientation Program—essentially lessons for new and returning citizens legislators, schoolin' them on everything from legislative processes to Schoolhouse Rock style "How a Bill Becomes a Law" lessons.
Sophomore legislators Sen. Melinda Smyser of Parma and Rep. Brian Cronin of Boise coached incoming freshmen with advice they picked up. A glance at Cronin's crib-notes showed "Be a Good Dad" and "16K Salary" high on the list. Citydesk counted eighteen new legislators in the comfy committee chairs.
Next up was Dr. Gary Moncrief, political science professor at Boise State. Author of three books, including State Legislatures Today: Politics Under the Domes, Moncrief knows a thing or two about state government. After a brief introduction from Sen. Smyser, who outlined the tough year ahead, and provided a Vince Lombardi quote, Moncrief broke down how Idaho compares to other states.
According to Moncrief, the spartan operating finances of the Idaho Legislature makes the establishment more JC Penney than Nordstrom, citing the lack of support staff, growing constituency to legislator ratio, and size of chambers.
Compared to the 400 House seats in New Hampshire, Idaho's a pretty small operation at 70 members. Pennyslvania boasts 203 members, Georgia 180; Idaho's more like Montana and Alaska, who have 100 and 40 members respectively. On the Senate side, ID hosts 35 members to a state like Minnesota's 67.
In California, the average district population is a whopping 911,000 people, and in Texas, 760,000. Idaho? About 40,000 (though that number has doubled since 1970). Populous states might have a lot of constituents, but at least their elected officials have support: to the tune of 3,461 staff members in New York, and 2,682 in Delaware. In California, the ratio is 15:1 support staff to legislators. In Idaho the ratio is 0.7:1. We have a total of 80 support staff members, ranked 44th in the nation.
Think our citizen legislators pull in too much dough? Compare their meager salary of $16,116 to that of California which trimmed legislator pay from $116,000 to a cool $99,000 per year. Stark contrast to the $200 paid to the House members in New Hampshire.
In reference to salary and per diems for Idaho legislators, Moncrief added:
"You add all that up, it's pretty much slave labor you're doin' here."
Surprisingly: Idaho's House ranks 9th in most-lopsided along party lines; the Senate as 11th most-lopsided. Moncrief acknowledged that Idaho's pretty much a one-party system. Lastly, he lauded the Idaho system of rootin' out the rif raff of bills by opting not to print them—some states print every bill drafted. He cites that as the reason behind the high rate of roughly 63% (in 2004/2005) of laws enacted that made it to the floor. He calls Idaho's system efficient, utilizing limited resources and time. Sometimes that means working the political game to get your bills printed.
His advice for incoming legislators:
"Get to know your committee chairs. Bring them gifts."