Does Iowa's "Hybrid" Legislative System Need a Change?
Late last year, Iowa Representative Quentin Stanerson of Center Point announced he would not seek re-election in 2016, so he could focus more on his family and teaching career. It brings into question whether Iowa's legislative system requires lawmakers to spread themselves too thinly between their work in the capitol, their careers, and life at home.
Currently, Iowa is one of 24 states in the U-S that have what's called a "hybrid legislature," according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That means in these states, lawmakers spend more than two-thirds of a full time job working at their state capitol. Their income from legislative work is higher than in "part-time" states, but it's usually not enough to make a living without another income source. We spoke with several Iowa lawmakers at the start of this year's session, to see if a full-time legislative system might work better in Iowa.
Every January, Iowa lawmakers meet in Des Moines and start the process of drafting bills, moving those bills through committees, and - for the ones that make it through both chambers - sending them to the governor for a signature. But state Senator Liz Mathis (D-Marion) said a lawmaker's work goes far beyond the walls of the state capitol. "You also have, you know, legislating during the session, then it's meeting with constituents out of session, then it's also campaigning, making sure people know you're running for re-election, and it's fund raising." For Mathis, that often means getting to the Senate chambers around 5 in the morning, and sometimes leaving at midnight. "I joke around, because when I'm out of session, it's my welfare agency job by day and legislation by night. And then when I'm in the legislature, it's legislator by day, and my child welfare job at night."
That requires job flexibility. Now in his 30th year as a lawmaker, state Senator Bob Dvorsky (D-Coralville) knows finding a job or employer that allows flexible hours is tough to find. "Somebody who normally works 8 to 4:30 or 9 to 5 or whatever - a regular job - that's almost impossible for them to come here and serve," Dvorsky explained.
Those are problems that come with a legislature that only serves part-time. But Coe College political science professor Bruce Nesmith believes there would be limitations regardless of the state's system. "Legislators pretty much are on duty all the time, whether or not they're full-time legislators," Nesmith explained. He said being a lawmaker isn't something every Iowan can do. "Either you're retired, or you have a law practice that you can take time off of, of you're in some kind of job where people don't mind you taking three months off."
State Representative Ken Rizer (R-Linn County) told us at times, serving as a lawmaker reminds him of his time in the military."It is kind of challenging to find work that wraps around the legislative schedule," Rizer said.
Many lawmakers we spoke with, including state Representative Dave Jacoby (D-Coralville), agreed the time requirements alone are enough for a person with a younger family to avoid running for office. "One of the key things they say is how will this affect my family, and how much time away?" Jacoby believes location can be another limiting factor. "I'm fortunate enough to live in Coralville, Iowa, which is 95 minutes away. So if I want to run home at night to catch a cello concert, or maybe watch one of the daughters play in theater or a golf meet, I have the opportunity to rush home, do that, and come back."
But a full-time legislature presents its own challenges. Mathis said while it may require less juggling of responsibilities, it would also require more money. "We're fairly conservative with our spending here in the state of Iowa," Mathis explained. "So, in order to do that, it would take a huge amount of money to change that, to have people go full-time."
State Senator Rob Hogg (D-Cedar Rapids) told us there are benefits to having a part-time system. When he's not in session, his family helps him with campaigning. "My wife and daughter at home, very engaged in the campaign. It's something we're doing as a group effort." He said being a part-timer gives him a chance to be a regular citizen, allowing him to stay better connected with the struggles of everyday Iowans. "Spending time with our families, doing our work, making sure the bills get paid."
It's strenuous, often thankless work, no matter how well a session goes over with voters, but these lawmakers say there are few things more rewarding.
"I've got to tell you, in the end, it's worth it," Mathis told us. "It's really worth it."