Jon Margolis: Abolish the State Senate

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This commentary was written by Jon Margolis of South Burlington.

The state Senate primaries passed and the 57 candidates were narrowed to 48, 25 Democrats and 19 Republicans.

On November 8, they will be reduced again to 30, who will take up their duties in Montpellier in January.

Then we can get rid of it.

Oh, not people. They are good people – Democrats, Republicans, progressives, whatever, may they all live long, healthy and happy lives.

Get rid of the Vermont Senate. Who needs it?

Who needs a state senate anywhere? As the esteemed Harold Meyerson recently noted in American Prospect, since the United States Supreme Court determined in Baker v. Carr (1964) that the two chambers of all legislatures should be apportioned according to population, state senates became redundant.

Nebraska has done very well with a single-chamber legislature since 1937. In only two of the other 49 states does one party not control both chambers, usually by wide margins.

This is precisely the case here. The Senate is over 76% Democrat and/or Progressive; the House of Representatives is over 65%. For the foreseeable future, any Vermont legislature will be left-leaning, regardless of its structure.

So why not have a simpler structure?

Congress has two chambers because it was created by the states, and although the states are not as sovereign as they claim, they retain some independent and self-governing powers. It therefore makes sense to have a chamber representing the States.

Vermont counties and municipalities do not have sovereignty or autonomy. They are creatures of the state. Here, only people need to be represented. They can get it better in a bedroom.

Here’s the plan: abolish the Senate and reduce the House from 150 members to… well, why not 50? Nebraska has 49 legislators (called senators), which is enough. That’s one legislator for every 38,775 Nebraska residents. A Vermont legislature of 50 members would be one for every 12,720 citizens, one of the lowest ratios in the country.

Then pay them a living wage, say $50,000 a year. That’s $2.5 million a year, roughly the cost of today’s 180 legislators.

With that kind of income, more young people might be interested in running for the legislature, which now feels like a natural retirement community.

And with just 50 districts, each would be diverse enough — a mix of farmers, small-town dwellers, city dwellers, commuters — to ward off the parochialism that can plague a legislator whose district only includes a few towns. farms or a few towns. neighborhoods.

Some good government advocates worry that under a single-chamber legislature it will be harder to block unwise bills.

But it would also be harder to block wise bills. In addition, US policy offers many opportunities for obstruction. Most laws must be approved by two or more commissions. Special interest groups and their well-paid lobbyists are adept at working with these committee members and manipulating public opinion. Make them earn a living.

By themselves, these changes would not save as much money. Legislature is cheap — about $17 million for fiscal year 2022, according to a Joint Fiscal Office memorandum. That’s out of a total budget of $8.126 billion.

But as has been reported, the Statehouse is too small. The committee rooms are cramped and airless, that is to say unsanitary. Legislators are considering adding a floor above the cafeteria. It would be expensive.

And it would be useless if the Senate were abolished. Just tear down the walls between those tiny Senate committee rooms on the first floor and the even smaller mazes of House committees on the second and third floors. Poof! A smaller (but sufficient) number of larger rooms where members can spread around the table and visitors don’t have to crawl over each other. There might even be room for all the legislators to have an office.

Much cheaper than adding new flooring, and it wouldn’t spoil the aesthetically appealing symmetry of the Statehouse.

But the important advantage would be neither aesthetic nor economical; it would be governmental and political. Every Vermonter would have a representative in Montpellier, someone to ask, to plead, to shout. These representatives, with professional salaries, would be more likely to have professional attitudes toward work, and they would all be able to spend more time listening to their constituents while serving in a leaner and more efficient institution.

It is an idea whose time has come. Other states will consider it. Vermonters often talk – in fact, sometimes talk too casually – about Vermont “leading the way”. Try to lead the way on this one.

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