Thursday, March 17, 2011

Regular legislative days are 18 times more expensive than special session days

Every time a Kentucky governor calls a special session, we read the same fact in news stories:
It will cost more than $63,000 a day for a special legislative session, which would last a minimum of five days.
However, this cost is marginal and fairly minor in the bigger legislative budget picture. It is simply the additional cost to taxpayers for an unplanned legislative day. Keep that in mind.

The real question is: how much does a regular legislative day cost? If you're a newspaper assignment editor, please steal this idea, assign the article and print it above the fold on the front page of Sunday's edition.

My back-of-the-envelope calculations assume that the price of a legislative "day" is roughly the legislative branch budget divided by the 90 days lawmakers are allowed to meet each biennium.

Alas, I can already hear some protestations from some Frankfort-ers that I am including construction costs, Legislative Research Commission staff, work days for staffers when the legislature is not in session, retirement contributions, insurance and the like. And lawmakers only meet for 90 days every two years.

My response: Lawmakers do not do their legislating on the sidewalk in front of Rick's White Light Diner. Every dollar spent on the legislative branch is spent in support of the days lawmakers spend discussing and passing legislation. Lawmakers don't do all their own bill drafting. Many resources are leveraged in the days leading up to and following any legislative session, including "special" ones.

As to retirement contributions, if you believe they don't deliver much in the way of high quality deliberations, then perhaps we should discuss letting Kentucky lawmakers take care of their own retirements. Until then, it's included in my calculation.

By using that figure (total legislative budget / legislative days), we must assume that lawmakers believe (and the governor agrees) that each dollar appropriated is necessary for lawmakers to do their jobs on behalf of Kentuckians.

For simplicity's sake, let's leave aside the fact that lawmakers in this biennium are contributing a small share of the money requested for their legislative retirement plan. Also, the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center and a few others received no funds as part of Frankfort's necessary belt tightening this biennium.

So let's take a look at HB 511, which is
AN ACT making appropriations for the operations, maintenance, and support of the Legislative Branch of the Commonwealth of Kentucky
in 2010's legislative session. The total appropriated biennial legislative branch budget is $104,856,200. Divided by the 90 days lawmakers are allowed to meet each biennium, that's $1,165,068.89 per legislative day.

At this point, I know some clever reader will ask him or herself: If it costs taxpayers more than a million dollars each day lawmakers spend in Frankfort, why aren't they prioritizing their workload so budgets pass on time and they get to (gasp!) go home early and save us all a few bucks?

I'm afraid I don't have a very good answer to that.

Housekeeping note: If a member of the Kentucky General Assembly or Legislative Research Commission believes that my simple calculation is in error, we will be happy to correct these numbers after discussing it.

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