Off The Record: Time to return to biennial sessions?

April 12, 2004|HERB BROCK

The late Joe Clarke used to illustrate the days when the legislature was dominated by Democrats and totally under the thumb of Democratic governor with a story about his rookie session as a House member in 1970.

"When I came to my desk for my first House meeting, I noticed a note from the governor's office," Clarke said in a chat I had with him years ago. "The note had a list of bills with notations next to each bill telling us which ones he wanted us to vote for, which ones he wanted us to vote against and which ones we could decide for ourselves."

Over the ensuing years, Clarke and other leaders of the legislature conducted a rebellion for legislative independence. Now, there are no more notes from the governor's office - unless they are nasty ones.

No one wants to return to the days when the governor was a dictator and the legislators were his legislative lackeys. And most of us, save the most loyal of Democrats, don't want to go back to that time of iron-fisted gubernatorial control when the governorship and both chambers of the General Assembly were controlled by Democrats.


It's a good thing that the legislature has independence and at least the Senate side of it, where the Republicans have a majority, actually reflects a two-party system.

But are we having too much of a good thing? Have some legislative leaders of both parties forgotten that with freedom comes responsibility? Have some Republican legislative leaders not found out that with power comes responsibility? Has our first Republican governor in more than three decades mistaken a solid victory at the polls for a mandate to ram his platform down Democratic throats?

These and other questions are being raised as the 2004 session of the legislature has mirrored the past two sessions in producing a lot of heat over sexy issues like same-sex marriage but not much light, a lot of headlines but not much headway toward solving major issues like the budget.

The high point of the session for headline writers - and the low point for the rest of us taxpayers - came when Republicans walked out of talks concerning a same-sex marriage ban.

First, I'm sure a lot of people are losing sleep over whether gays should be allowed to marry. I just don't happen to be one of them, and I believe there are quite a few others, albeit perhaps a minority, who agree with me on that point.

Second, I believe a majority of us, no matter what our views on gays getting married, would have wished our legislative leaders had spent less time engaged in acrimony over matrimony and more time getting closer to each other, platonically as well as politically, of course. There should have been some cooperation and collaboration, rather than confrontation and consternation, in search of compromises on such little matters as keeping education reform going and improving teachers' pay, solving the Medicaid crisis and balancing the state budget.

We can all hope that the 2005 session will be more professional and productive, but the recent trend indicates otherwise.

Maybe if next year's session is as silly as the last three, we should conduct a citizens' version of BOPTROT and raid the Capitol and make citizens' arrests of the governor and legislative leaders of both parties on the grounds of gross grandstanding and incompetence.

Or maybe we should repeal the constitutional amendment we passed a few years ago authorizing the legislature to meet once every year instead of biennially. The change was meant to give our representatives more time to come up with solutions to our problems. Unfortunately, it's given them more time to create problems.

Or maybe we should pass an amendment to the amendment requiring that every even-year session be devoted to the budget and other matters and that every odd-year session be set aside for wrangling over the time-consuming, grandstanding social issues. Those folks can have a full 60 days to have it out over everything from same-sex marriage to the posting of the Ten Commandments to defining when life begins.

Or maybe, just maybe, we should turn back to the time when the governor ran the show. As abhorrent as that prospect is to anyone with democratic sensibilities, at least things would get done.

Back then, at least class was orderly as each student got his or her assignment in note form from the teacher and got it done. Today, it's a chaotic scene with students passing notes to each other and getting nothing done.

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