How can we get the very most qualified Arizonans to run for the Legislature?
It's a timely question with our Legislature back in session. But it's worth pointing out that most legislators are not incompetent, nor corrupt, although that is what you often hear.
It never ceases to amaze that when community leaders and respected folk from around the state are elected to legislative office they are magically transformed by the media into self-serving nincompoops. Unremitting media disdain results in dismal public approval ratings. It happens to legislators in just about all states, not just here.
Arizona's current legislature - the East Valley contingent in particular - deserves special credit for instituting necessary but unpopular spending cuts and driving a promised reform agenda (much of which was vetoed by the governor). But no matter. To our pompous pundits, they're still just a bunch of piñatas fit for whacking.
My theory is that state legislators are at a level where they have great responsibility but limited resources. They have to say no frequently. When the blowback comes, they don't have the extensive staff of PR apparatchiks in place that federal politicians supply for themselves.
Still, it's a good idea to look for ways to upgrade our legislature. Let's start with some things that don't work.
Using public money to pay politicians' campaign expenses - Clean Elections - has been a colossal bust. The "clean" folks, in their paid advertisements, still claim they have made it possible for more people to run for office but the numbers don't lie.
The number of candidates for office has remained unchanged for decades in spite of the millions poured into taxpayer-funded elections. The only change commonly attributed to Clean Elections has been a perceived uptick in the level of partisanship.
Another thing to avoid is raising legislative salaries. "Mo' money" is a favorite nostrum of the self-anointed good government reformers. But think about it. Do we really want mediocre legislators frantically clinging to office so that they won't lose their comfortable middle-income salary?
If more pay produced a better class of lawmakers, California would be the envy of the nation. It's not, of course. Instead, California legislators are highly skilled at self-perpetuation in office while driving the formerly Golden State into the ditch. New York, Illinois and most other states with full time legislatures have racked up similar unimpressive results.
The reform that seems to hold the most promise for attracting more talent to the legislature is to hold more limited, structured sessions. For the successful businessman, professional or entrepreneur, the current legislative sessions are too long and, more importantly, too unpredictable.
Apologists claim that state government is so complicated that lengthy sessions are required to get all the necessary legislating done. But that assertion doesn't stand up to examination either. Very few of our problems can be improved by passing more laws. Instead, when the legislature is in session there is always one more situation to micro-manage, one more favor to pass out, one more headline begging a legislative response.
Over a thousand bills are introduced annually. Other than the budget, only a minority are of any pressing significance. Many do more harm than good.
States with a smaller volume of legislative activity do fine. Texas, where the legislature meets only every other year, has one of the nation's healthiest economies.
In Utah, legislative sessions are limited to 45 days. (Arizona strives for 100 day sessions, but marathons up to 170 days are not uncommon and special sessions throughout the year add to the workload.) Utah legislative committees conduct hearings in the interim. Important issues can be considered in a more thoughtful, focused manner while efficiently limiting the time commitments of the citizen-legislators. It's a model Arizona should consider.
State government impacts our daily lives more than you may think. Schools and universities, crime, courts and prisons, environmental protections business regulations, health care and transportation are just some of the issues tackled by state legislators.
We need to do every thing we can to assure that the best and brightest are able to serve as our lawmakers.
East Valley resident Tom Patterson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired physician and former state senator.