Quote of the Day:
Texas’s part-time legislature—it meets in 140-day sessions every other year—has been a key factor in its economic success.
–Jon Cassidy in City Journal
Politicians are always telling us what they will do for us. Perhaps the best thing they could do for us is to do a lot less. Take more days off maybe. Be more like the legislators in Texas, who are in session only 140 days a year.
Texas isn't the only state that seems to benefit from having a part-time legislature. Indeed an article in City Journal finds that states that have part-time legislatures end up with less public spending. The legislators may also have a less grandiose view of their roles in your life. Houston reporter Jon Cassidy writes:
A 2000 study by Stephanie Owings of the U.S. Naval Academy and Rainald Borck of Berlin’s Humboldt University found that states with part-time legislatures spend 12 percent less, on average, than states with full-time or hybrid legislatures. Lawmakers who don’t see themselves as the center of the universe, it seems, are less likely to want to pay for everyone’s health care, fret about fracking, or declare half the state environmentally protected. Texas’s biennial legislature kills most big, economy-wrecking ideas before they gain momentum.
The part-time legislature is a product of the skepticism about government by old-time Texans:
The early Texans fully expected government to fail, so they did everything they could to limit the scope of that failure. Texas government is, in a sense, broken by design—leaving civil society free to flourish.
Cassidy admits that the system is not without its drawbacks. Cronyism is rampant, and, as he puts it, legislators may be part-time, but lobbyists are not. And, while there are fewer regulations, those that exist often protect the moneyed interests. Poor people have a hard time serving in government because the pay is only $600 a month with a $150 per diem.
Those are some of the problems: the good news is that the benefits of the Texas model, overseen by its part-time legislature, are impossible to ignore. From 2000 to 2014, Texas created some 2.5 million nonfarm jobs, more than a quarter of the U.S. total for the period. In 2015, amid free-falling oil prices, Texas still managed to finish third among states in job growth, thanks to booming health care, education, professional services, manufacturing, hospitality, warehousing, and light industrial sectors.
Construction is doing well, too. Wondrously cheap housing and pro-growth land-use policies draw people and business to the state. None of this diversification was centrally planned. It’s the product of an economy that’s wide open to foreign trade and immigration. Immigration has boosted native Texans’ income by an aggregate $3.4 billion to $6.6 billion a year. Income inequality is up, too—but that’s just another way of saying that high-paying jobs are growing fastest.
To a large degree, the Texas model has worked because the Austin governing establishment is penned in, limited in the damage that it can inflict by a state constitution that not only keeps lawmakers from enacting new laws for one out of every two years but also severely restricts taxation and imposes budget caps. Texas has no state income tax, and instituting one would require voter approval.
The legislature makes do with a sales tax, a handful of excise taxes, and an onerous gross-receipts tax that penalizes high-volume businesses. The Texas state government simply never has the money for bold new expansions of government. So it stays small, just as the original Texans wanted it. It’s not perfect and never will be, but the state is flourishing.
Next time a politician tells us all the great things he or she wants to do for us in Washington, maybe we'd better say that the best thing a politician can do for us is to take some personal time.