California and other states with large populations are legal innovators of sorts, as I explained last week. In order to make all of those laws, big states need to have a different kind of legislator.
The sheer mass of state law in California and other states with large population — California has six to seven times the amount of law of small states — shows that large states are legal innovators in many other ways, using their large populations as incubators.
As I noted last week:
Population is a major determinant of whether a state has various laws, and of the amount of detail state lawmakers provide in their statutes. States with a lot of people have a greater variety of situations that arise that might be addressed by lawmakers. We found that the large states tend to be the early adopters of new laws, with the smaller states following later.
Laws do not come out of thin air but require effort by legislators to come to a consensus and put their statutes on paper. Working as a legislator in a small state like New Hampshire is a very different job than working as a California legislator.
To examine this further, I went back to studies of state politics by Robert E. McCormick and Robert D. Tollison of Clemson and William F. Shugart of the University of Mississippi that began in the 1970s. They examined the size of the state legislatures, the work hours of legislators and legislator salaries.
I have reformatted some of their data to focus on the effects of population and displayed some of the results in the chart below, comparing the population of each state with the total payroll of the state’s legislature in the 1970s (as these studies were published years ago, they do not reflect more recent data). Total payroll is the product of the number of legislators and the annual salary of each legislator.
California’s legislature had about five times the payroll of the smallest states’ legislatures (and 90 times the payroll of New Hampshire!). Just as a state’s population is tied to the volume of its laws, so, too, is there a clear positive relationship between number of people in the state and the amount the state spends on its legislature.
It is not simply a case of more people, more legislators, because the number of seats in state houses and state senates were in most cases determined more than 100 years earlier when California and Texas did not have much population, while Massachusetts and other eastern states were among the nation’s leaders in population.
Instead, the states seem to differ in the amount of work they require from each legislator. In small states, being a legislator is a part-time part-year job, whereas many large states have their legislators working full-time full-year. And legislators are paid for their efforts: in the 1970s, the average annual pay of California legislators was more than 300 times the salary in New Hampshire ($32,000 compared with $100).
Because the number of legislators is not closely linked to population, each legislator in a high-population state has a much larger constituency than his counterpart in a small state. The process of getting elected and making legislation once elected varies widely with the population of the state, and those different processes demand different talents from the politicians.
When voting takes place in every state next month, the types of candidates on the ballot and the ultimately victorious will vary widely between the small states and the large states. Given the differences in workloads, compensation and expectations, this is no surprise.