D. Dowd Muska


Your Next Assignment: Scrutinize the Solons

January 14, 2016

They’re back. Or they will be. So it’s time to pay attention. Then act.

Forty-six of the “laboratories of democracy” hold regular legislative sessions in 2016. (Breathe easy, taxpayers in Montana, Texas, North Dakota, and Nevada.) Solons have gathered in Idaho, Colorado, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Maine. They’ll soon assemble in Utah, Oregon, and Alabama. Minnesota, Arkansas, and North Carolina won’t meet for a few more months.

Who “serves” in legislatures? Last year, the Pew Research Center examined the demographics of state lawmakers. The group is older (56) than the U.S. voting-age population (47). Seventy-five percent are men. The share of female legislators is “up dramatically from the 5 percent figure of the early 1970s. But the percentage hasn’t budged much in more than a decade.” (Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told Pew: “Women are less likely to run unless they’re recruited, and they’re less likely to be recruited.”)

Blacks comprise 9 percent of state legislators, but are 13 percent of the citizenry. Latinos have won just 5 percent of seats, less than a third of their share of the population. It’s the same story for Asians -- 1 percent versus 5 percent.

So contrary to the claim that a coalition of minorities and women are responsible for Big Government at the state level, it’s old, white men who’ve pushed spending almost to the breaking point. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that in 2013, general state-government expenditures totaled $1.7 trillion.

About 30 percent of revenue flowed to local governments, primarily in the form of aid to school districts. Monopoly education in the United States has a staggering price tag -- well over $600 billion. Despite strong evidence that local funding yields superior outcomes, the trend has been toward greater state subsidization of K-12 schools.

Medicaid consumed $475.9 billion worth of state budgets in the 2014 fiscal year, with the federal treasury providing much of the money. Obamacare expanded healthcare for the “poor,” so the bill will continue to soar. About one in five Americans is now on Medicaid.

Flat busted itself, D.C. is not likely to help with state debt -- a sum that surpasses $5 trillion. Wisconsin is $45 billion in the red. Alabama’s gap is $68 billion. Colorado has an arrearage of $87 billion. California, Illinois, New York? Don’t ask. Some of the debt is derived from borrowing for roads and other vital infrastructure. But a major contributor is wildly generous compensation, i.e., unsustainable promises made to bureaucrats. Even the horrors of Great Recession were not able to successfully right-size sweet pensions and lucrative healthcare benefits. Life on Easy Street continues for those retiring after a sinecure in “public service.”

With states spending -- and owing -- so much, influencing what happens in capitol complexes is more important than ever. Last spring, a review of lobbying by The Washington Post found that “professional advocates reported spending at least $2.2 billion on activity aimed at influencing state legislators in 28 states where data was available during the 2013-2014 biennium -- with virtually every state seeing dramatic growth over the last decade.”

Some states are cleaner than others, but generally, legislatures have serious transparency issues and lack basic accountability. Corruption is commonplace. A few months ago, the Center for Public Integrity released the results of a “comprehensive probe” that “found that in state after state, open records laws are laced with exemptions and … legislators and agency officials engage in glaring conflicts of interests and cozy relationships with lobbyists. Meanwhile, feckless, understaffed watchdogs struggle to enforce laws as porous as honeycombs.”

Depressing stuff. But one advantage taxpayers have with state government that they lack in Washington is access. Most legislators aren’t on the job full-time, and aren’t paid enough to make lawmaking their sole “profession.” Even during sessions, they’re often back home, where it’s tough to hide. And many Americans live in or fairly close to their capitals -- popping by a legislator’s office isn’t a burden. Even testifying at a hearing isn’t as challenging as it appears. Usually, showing up and putting your name on the witness list is all that’s required. (Rest assured, you probably know more about the issue than the committee’s members.)

It’s go time for legislative sessions. So get active. Confront those who “represent” you. Don’t make threats, and try to keep your composure. But make it clear that government in your state needs to change, and that if it doesn’t, it will be time to change lawmakers.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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