Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Give Us Liberty or We Sentence It to Death...

There has been a lot of buzz in the media and in political circles about Massachusetts' abysmally low rate of contested Legislative races last year. Only 35 of 200 races were contested, the lowest rate of all the states that held legislative races here. The previous year, Boston had its lowest voter turnout during for its midterm City Council races. It has led many, such as the Boston Globe's Jeff Jacoby to observe that Cradle of Liberty may have witnessed the death of democracy within its own borders.

Both Jacoby, Commonwealth magazine, and others have drawn parallels and lessons from Minnesota. The two state both have similarly sized populations, with its biggest block of people clustered in the capital areas. Both states have a reputation for progressive/liberal politics, especially in the last century. However, all of Minnesota's State legislative races were contested. Sure, the bluest and reddest districts remained unchanged, but there was debate and perhaps most importantly there was choice.

What makes Minnesota "more democratic" if you will, boils down to a few things. Amassing campaign war chests is impossible. Unspent campaign money cannot be carried over year to year in excess of $15,000. Moreover, the state has a more effective public campaign financing system than Massachusetts did its brief affair with public financing of campaigns. Money is collected and allocated to a party based on taxpayers checking off a box on their taxes. Moreover, the parties are encouraged to field candidates for every partisan office or risk losing their allotment of public financing for that district. Notably, Minnesota's Constitution requires that its House Districts fit into its Senate districts as there are exactly twice as many Reps as there are Senators. This may result in a system that makes it easier for voters to figure out who their officials are.

What further vexes people is how the Minnesota legislature, which is part-times passes the same number of bills as the Massachusetts General Court, a full-time legislature. Rate of bill passage, is not, however, indicative of anything. Certainly many bills should not pass and that is part of the process. However, since so many bills that do pass are of a local nature or somewhat inconsequential (and not knowing how that shakes out in MN), it does give one pause.
So what to do about it?

Well, the reforms in the campaign finance system would be a great, if unlikely start. The legislature is probably not going to legislate a limit on annual campaign carryovers. The public cares, but not enough to serious contemplate voting for somebody else in the ostensibly unlikely event that their rep or senator is challenged. However, a ballot initiative may have some hope there. Who could oppose it? Maybe some groups that have a misguided sense of how campaigns work. Certainly no politician would say "Vote this down because its unfair to me, your Rep or Senator for life, who benefits by the status quo." The other parts including a new financing system are quaint, but doubtful since it would inevitably entail some start up money from the state, which it does not have.

Then there is the question about the part-time, full-time nature of the legislature. Despite the similarities, it seems unlikely that Massachusetts would benefit from a part-time legislature. First of all, it seems doubtful that the state could sustain its pace with less time. The legislature would likely remain one of the most lobbied in the country and the political infrastructure, which extends into the cities and towns would take years to yield any benefit.

The alternative would be to further professionalize the legislature, which entails more money for lawmakers. More money might attract more qualified candidates. That, simply, will not happen. Bay Staters remain angered by pay increases guaranteed to lawmakers under the state Constitution. Boosting them to six figures, as California lawmakers have, would be anathema to voters. It is important to note, however, that California's forty Senators in Sacramento have more constituents than any US Congressman from the most populous state.

There is also a question about attitude. Both Jacoby and Commonwealth magazine note how Minnesota legislators hand out their private numbers "like candy." I think the mindset in Massachusetts simply doesn't fit that kind of behavior. Should Reps and Senators have gatekeepers than limit access by Constituents to them? No. However, all 200, the Speaker and Sen. Pres included must make a concerted effort to be available and limit screening, from Constituents mostly, as much as possible. Keep the staff to filter out the lobbyists and nuts, however.

It is frightful to think that Springfield had 18 candidates for City Council in 2007 for 9 spots, while the following year only 35 seats were contested in the Legislature. For the rest of the state, particularly its affluent communities to cast aspersions upon the City of Homes, is odd. Sure, the city kept electing yutzes who brought the city near bankruptcy, but we maintained a democratic spirit and competition throughout, unlike many of them, including Boston.

Change is glacial and in Massachusetts it skips a few ice ages. One way or another something must be done. It will take more than laws. It will take a more involved citizenry, including people willing to challenge incumbents, however hopelessly. It will mean legislators who decide to retire after a period of time, not relying on legislating as a career. Nobody is saying term limits. We're just saying let somebody else have a chance. Then, Massachusetts may have a chance to live up to its name in both history and lore.

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