Lame Ducks Ruffle Feathers in 3 Statehouses

 

Some of the hottest issues before the Pennsylvania General Assembly could be decided after Election Day this year - by a record number of lame-duck legislators who will be days away from leaving office.

Because of retirements or primary election losses, at least 49 of Pennsylvania's 253 state legislators won't be returning to the Capitol next year but still will be voting when the General Assembly convenes for a key session between Election Day and Dec. 1, when newcomers will be sworn in.

That abnormally large proportion of departing lawmakers - which could grow if voters were to oust more incumbents in the Nov. 7 election - has led grassroots organizations and some state lawmakers to amplify calls to end or limit the traditional November "sine die" session. Critics say the session, in which legislators this year could consider a tax increase to pay for mass transit improvements, allows outgoing lawmakers to vote on crucial legislation without accountability to voters.

"They're making major decisions that are going to affect us for years to come, and they're not even coming back," Pennsylvania state Rep. Carole Rubley (R) told Stateline.org .

Officials in two other states also have moved recently to curb lame-duck powers. In New Jersey, which holds so-called "lame-duck sessions" in odd-numbered years, a pair of state lawmakers introduced a measure in March that would "prevent shenanigans from happening right before people are going out the door," said Assemblyman Michael J. Doherty (R), one of the bill's sponsors. Meanwhile, Utah legislative leaders this year banned lame ducks from taking trips paid for by taxpayer dollars.

Lame ducks - lawmakers who have lost bids for re-election, are retiring or, in some states , are term-limited - are nothing out of the ordinary.

Nationwide, term limits automatically turned 268 state legislators into lame ducks this year. Ten current governors are lame ducks - because of term limits in Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Nevada, Ohio and by choice in Iowa, Massachusetts and New York. Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) is the only governor rendered a lame duck by voters, who ousted him in an Aug. 22 primary.

But while lame-duck lawmakers are common, built-in lame-duck state legislative sessions are rare. Most state legislatures finish their work well before Election Day. Twelve states (Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin) do not limit the length of their legislative cycles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures , which tracks statehouse procedures across the nation. But of those states, very few hold regular sessions as late as November. Congress, however, often reconvenes after Election Day.

In Pennsylvania, this year's post-election session — known as "sine die," or Latin for "without day" - will include more lame-duck lawmakers than any in decades, according to political analysts in the Keystone State. Opponents say the General Assembly should finish its business before voters go to the polls.

"The most common question I get is, 'What does sine die mean?' I always tell people it's Latin for 'Screw the taxpayers,'" said Lowman Henry, president and chief executive officer of the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research Inc. , a conservative Harrisburg, Pa., think tank that opposes November sessions.

An angry electorate led to this year's large flock of lame ducks in Pennsylvania. After state legislators awarded themselves a pay raise during a middle-of-the-night session in July 2005, furious voters ousted 17 lawmakers - including the state Senate's top two leaders - in a May primary. Many other legislators decided to retire rather than face voters.

Reacting to the pay-raise ruckus, grassroots organizations such as Common Cause of Pennsylvania have called for greater transparency and accountability. At the same time, at least 30 members of Pennsylvania's House of Representatives have formed the Jefferson Reform Initiative, a bipartisan group of legislators seeking, among other things, to end or limit the sine die session.

"There is a widespread recognition that we need to do something about the sine die session," said state Rep. Curt Schroeder (R), a founding member of the Jefferson Reform Initiative.

Not all General Assembly members agree. State Rep. Mark McNaughton (R), who announced his retirement this year, said cutting short the state's legislative calendar would "limit the Legislature's ability to do its job."

Questions about the accountability of outgoing lawmakers are "offensive," he added.

"Lawmakers are elected to do a job, and they're going to do that job until they leave office," McNaughton said.

In neighboring New Jersey, the state's regular sessions after Election Day are "when all the dirty work is done, including tax increases," said Doherty, the state legislator who introduced a bill this year along with Assemblyman Richard A. Merkt (R) to amend the state constitution to limit what can be addressed during the late meetings.

The bill, which has not seen any action since its introduction, would prohibit legislators from authorizing tax hikes, pay raises or state borrowing during the lame-duck session. New Jersey, which holds elections in odd-numbered years, swears in new lawmakers in early January.

In Utah, meanwhile, two Republican legislative leaders - House Speaker Greg Curtis and Senate President John Valentine - recently prohibited lame ducks from traveling to out-of-state conferences.

Organizations such as NCSL, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Council of State Governments regularly host conferences to foster communication among state lawmakers. States usually pay legislators' travel and accommodation costs.

But Utah legislative leaders decided to ban lame-duck attendance at out-of-state conferences because the knowledge gained would not benefit the state, said Jennifer Lambert, an assistant to Curtis.

"Why are we sending them all over the country and spending money when they're not returning?" Lambert said.

Despite efforts by state officials and grassroots groups to limit lame-duck powers, those initiatives likely won't gain traction among much of the general public, according to Chris Mooney, editor of State Politics and Policy Quarterly .

"The American public has a very limited attention span for governmental arcana, which can be extremely important," Mooney said.

 
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