By Karl Kurtz
That's a question I get all the time when I speak to groups, both inside and outside of state capitols, about American legislatures. A recent magazine article featuring my categorization of legislatures as "professionalized," "hybrid" and "citizen" has generated several recent inquiries about which type of legislature is better.
I have an answer to this question, but first a few words about terminology. "Full-" and "part-time" are the common phrases that most people use to differentiate the operations of state legislatures. Political scientists have a fancier term, "professionalization," which measures not only the amount of time that legislators spend on the job but also the compensation of legislators and the number of staff working for the legislature. Professionalization is the concept that I have used to create the categories of legislatures.
The concept of legislative professionalization is designed to measure the capacity of legislatures and legislators to make policy decisions. Capacity, though, does not necessarily mean performance. A legislature with high capacity can perform poorly (Congress being an example), while legislatures with low capacity can perform at high levels.
It's also important to note that the policy-making capacity of a legislature (professionalization) is only one value among others that legislators and voters may set store by when they make decisions about the resources that they provide to their state legislature. One value that might conflict with increasing the capacity of legislatures might be public views about the appropriate scale and cost of state government. A second might be a desire to be governed by citizen legislators who spend most of their lives living and working in their local communities. Like the legendary Roman leader Cincinnatus, who left his farm to fight a war but returned to the plow when the war was over, citizen legislators go to the capitol to legislate for a few months but then return to their home towns.
All of this leads to my answer to the question: Neither one is necessarily better. I believe that the principal goal should be to have a legislature that is an independent and coequal branch of government, able effectively to represent the views of constituents, pass laws, and balance the power of the executive. Different legislatures with different levels of professionalization can accomplish these goals. Each state needs to choose the level of resources (compensation, time and staff) that allows them to meet these goals, within the context of their state's culture, size, complexity and values about government.
I will say, though, that the larger population states that are more socially complex and have necessarily large executive branches are more likely to need greater capacity in order for their legislature to be an independent and coequal branch of government. In other words, to represent its fairly homogenous population of half a million people effectively, Wyoming may not need California's full-time legislators, who are paid close to $100,000 a year and have a staff of more than 2,000 to help govern a state of 38 million people. But Wyoming's citizen legislature, which meets two months of the year, pays its members $12,000 and has a staff of about 40, would find it hard effectively to balance the power of the executive in a state as large and complex as California.
And indeed, that is the path that most states have taken in building the capacity of their legislatures. With only a very few exceptions the states that have the most professionalized legislatures have the largest populations, and the citizen legislatures are in the smallest population states. The hybrid legislatures are in-between, mostly in the medium population states.
Building on a table that appears in Peverill Squire and Gary Moncrief, State Legislatures Today: Politics Under the Domes, here is a summary of the implications of the two extreme levels of professionalization, incorporating some values other than policymaking capacity. The middle column of this table is adapted from Squire and Moncrief's book; the right column is my summary of qualities associated with citizen legislatures (click to enlarge).