One common goal of conservative activists in Michigan is a part-time legislature. This dates back to before the Tea Party era, and it reappears periodically, as in Brian Calley's ill-fated ballot proposal in 2017. But is this really something that conservatives should want?
To be sure, a part-time legislature is not some pipe dream. Forty states have some form of a part-time legislature, though how part-time they are varies from state to state. For example, in Minnesota the part-time legislators are paid $46500, which is a decent salary for a full-time job.
There are a couple commonly cited benefits to a part-time legislature. One is saving money on legislators' salaries. This is a small proportion of a state budget. In Michigan, the state budget is 61.6 billion, and the entire budget for the state legislature is 175 million, or 0.3%. The base salary for legislators is about $72000, so the total salary for legislators is about 10.6 million. Even if we assume a total cost of $100000 per legislator including fringe benefits, the total cost is still only about 15 million, or 0.02% of the state budget. Clearly the savings from cutting legislators' salaries are minimal.
Another benefit cited is to limit the time the legislature is in session, and hence to limit the number of bills passed. There is some evidence on behalf of this belief.
There are also some downsides to a part-time legislature.
One problem is that a part-time legislature limits who can be a legislator. When legislator salaries are low, most people who need to support a family will find it impractical to run for office. Those who can run for office will be mainly wealthy people, retirees, and young activists.
Some professions would be much more convenient for potential candidates. Anyone with a fixed schedule (office workers, factory workers, teachers, etc.) could not hold theri job while being a legislator. However, people more flexible employment (salesmen, real estate agents, farmers, many business owners, political activists) could. Is this fair? Does it lead to better political outcomes for the public?
Another problem is the potential for conflict of interest. Legislators who are financially dependent on a particular business would be very likely to vote for its interests. (While legislators might be required to abstain on a bill that directly involved their own employer, this would not extend to an entire industry. Farmers are not expected to recuse themselves on all bills involving agriculture.)
It is all too likely that legislators who are employed by someone else will face some pressure to vote the way the employer would prefer. It wouldn't have to be anything as direct as actually ordering an employee to vote a certain way. An employer could drop a few hints, and the legislator would know that the wrong vote might risk his job.
Case in point, an Alabama state representative was fired from his job as a sheriff's deputy after sponsoring a constitutional carry bill.
The sheriff in Mobile County, Alabama has fired a captain in the Sheriff’s Department over his support for Constitutional Carry. Capt. Shane Stringer is also a state representative, and was the primary sponsor of the permitless carry bill introduced in the legislature earlier this year. That apparently angered Sheriff Sam Cochran enough that he terminated Stringer over the legislation.
Cochran notified Stringer on Wednesday that he was being fired as a captain within the department because he sponsored “constitutional carry” gun rights legislation as a member of the Alabama House of Representatives. Cochran also told a Washington County media outlet that the bill to allow Alabamians to carry their handguns concealed without paying an Alabama sheriff for a pistol permit for the privilege was the reason for the personnel decision.
How many times have state legislators changed their positions because they weren't brave enough to stand up to pressure?
Another issue is how the proposal would affect the legislature's ability to check the powers of the other branches. After all, the governor and executive branch officials would still be full-time. If the legislature has a problem with the governor's actions, how can it pass legislation, hold hearings, initiate impeachment, etc. if it is not in session? A governor could wait to veto popular legislation until the legislature is out of session, and depending how the law is written, it might not be able to return to vote on an override.
In Michigan, executive branch appointments are automatically confirmed unless the legislature rejects them within 60 days. Citizens' initiatives can be approved by the legislature (and bypass the governor) when it is in session. Otherwise, they must go on the ballot in the next election. A well-crafted plan for a part-time legislature might avoid some of these problems, but if the legislature is regularly called back to vote on veto overrides, appointments, initiatives, etc., is it really part-time?
Most politicians don't deserve what they are paid. But paying politicians isn't about what they deserve, it is about ensuring their independence in a system of checks and balances designed to protect our rights. A part-time legislature would weaken their role in that system.