For most state legislators in the United States, public service is a part-time gig; forty U.S. states have part-time or hybrid legislatures. These part-time state lawmakers have regular jobs, and while some are conventional—law or business—some are less so. (There’s the pizza delivery guy in Arkansas, the boxing and mixed martial arts judge in Nevada, the hula dancer in Hawaii, and the alligator hunter in Louisiana.) Part-time legislatures are popular because they’re cheap—New Hampshire pays its legislators just $100 per year—and also because of distrust of professional politicians and a romantic notion that the legislature should instead be a forum for citizens of varied professional backgrounds to bring their unique perspective to the lawmaking process.
But part-time legislatures also entail significant corruption risks for three reasons. First, when legislators have private sector jobs, it may be easier for them to conceal bribe payments as legitimate outside income. Second, part-time legislators’ low public salaries may make them more inclined to accept bribes or otherwise abuse their office than better-paid full-time legislators. These two factors have been discussed previously on this blog. Here, I want to consider a third factor: the potential conflicts of interest between an official’s public and private work.
A part-time legislator’s dual responsibilities will often, perhaps inevitably, conflict. Teachers will vote on education issues, doctors on health care bills, and business owners on tax plans. Lawyers, lobbyists, and insurance agents may vote on legislation that directly affects their clients. Part-time legislators may even introduce bills advancing their private professional interests. Take the Missouri legislator who introduced and secured passage of a bill prohibiting cities from banning plastic bags at grocery stores—and who also happened to be the director of the Missouri Grocers Association. Similarly egregious, lawyers serving as part-time legislators have sponsored bills raising the salaries or pensions of judges before whom they had cases. One might worry too that part-time legislators, especially those who are lawyers or lobbyists, will implicitly or explicitly use their public positions as a way to drum up business, precisely because potential clients might think that hiring a part-time legislator will increase the odds of favorable legislative treatment. And even if a part-time legislator is not influenced in the slightest by her private professional interests, conflicts like those just described still risk creating the appearance of corruption. What can be done about this?