Public Assets Institute > Blog > Streamlining democracy

Streamlining democracy

If the Legislature is serious about efficient governance, it might want to look closer to home before trying to streamline and consolidate Vermont’s school system. Vermont has a lot of legislators for such a small state. Perhaps the House and Senate would be more cost effective if they were more like the rest of the country.

There was a push in the last session to reduce the number of school districts and school board members in the name of improving school governance and efficiency. Proponents of consolidation appeared to be driven, in large part, by national norms. Whether in the number of school districts, teacher-pupil ratios, or per pupil spending, they seemed to think Vermont could save money and get better results if it was more average.

By that same measure—state average—Vermont has far more state representatives and senators than it needs. Across the country, the average House member represents about 60,000 people, and the average senator represents nearly 160,000 people. In Vermont, the ratios are about 1 to 4,100 in the House and 1 to 21,000 in the Senate. If Vermonters settled for the average representation that residents have in other states, we could get by with 11 members in the House and four in the Senate.

We probably would need to pay these legislators a real salary because they each would have so much more responsibility. But think of the savings on mileage, meals, and weekly stipends if we reduced the General Assembly from 180 to just 15.

And imagine how much more efficiently legislation would move. Only six people would have to agree to get a majority vote in the House. In the Senate, three votes would be enough to pass a bill. It shouldn’t take more than a few weeks to do the people’s business each winter in Montpelier.

This all assumes that when it comes to governance, in local communities or in Montpelier, what we need is more efficiency, rather than more citizen participation. As for trying to be more like other states, I wonder which state Vermont would rather to be.

Posted by Jack Hoffman on May 30, 2014 at 3:37 pm

3 Responses to “Streamlining democracy”

  1. Robert Oeser says:

    Well done!

    A footnote, for the record:

    “For it may well be that the form of government which is most efficient in the hands of tyrants — probably an executive dictatorship — is also the most efficient form of government that can be wielded by a wise and benevolent ruler. On the other hand, a cumbersome system of checks and balances, which has hamstrung some of the noblest efforts of the few truly great statesmen this country has produced, has also contributed mightily to the preservation of our democracy through long periods of bad or mediocre political leadership.”

    “Colonisalism: A Realistic Apprach,” Felix S. Cohen
    Ethics, Vol. 55, No. 3 (Apr., 1945), pp. 167-181
    University of Chicago Press

  2. Rep. Tom Koch says:

    Actually, Paul, it’s not all that different as it is! All it takes to get a bill voted out of a House committee favorably is six votes. Once a bill is on the floor, endorsed by a committee with a Democratic majority, the party leadership enforces party discipline and makes sure the bill has enough votes on the floor to pass–and with the Democrats’ supermajority, that’s not hard to do. Debate means little if the votes are already in the bag and counted before the debate even begins–it’s just an opportunity for the minority to blow off steam.

    With such a system–legislators voting for their party rather than for what their individual judgment tells them is right–i’ve often wondered why we even bother to bring a bill to the full House for a vote! Government by six people seems to work just fine–or so some might think.

  3. Sarah Buxton says:

    The purpose of the legislative arm of government is to bring many different interests to the table to promote a full and robust debate. The purpose of an education system is to promote and support student learning. While the adults may appreciate the opportunity to debate various ways to deliver education in local communities, the value of the adult-focused debate doesn’t fall to the children. We don’t have evidence that children’s learning is improved with more layers of governance. We do have some anecdotal evidence that greater flexibility in decision-making (allowing administrators to be more nimble, sharing teachers, adopting innovative (and sometimes unpopular) best practices, etc.) does support student learning. Comparing governance of government with governance of education is an apple-orange fit.