MONEY FOR NOTHING

The move to one chamber could be the catalyst to usher in a variety of reforms that would never be implemented piecemeal, says Bruce Cain, Heller professor of political science and public policy at the University of California-Berkeley.

That's what happened in Nebraska, which has laws and operating rules that demand far more openness and public debate than Massachusetts.

Abolishing the House would also save tens of millions of dollars a year. The state budget includes $34 million for House operations — twice the cost of the Senate — and close to another $8 million for joint operations of the two chambers.

Some of that money could go toward raising senators' salaries to full-time pay — which would allow for stricter rules against interest-conflicting outside employment, and elimination of leadership-position bonuses that in practice buy loyalty with cash.

In addition, the savings could buy additional staff for individual senators and committees, enabling and encouraging them to act independently, and making them less reliant on the central authority.

But regardless of any specific changes to the Senate, the spotlight put on it would be cleansing, some argue.

"The main bonuses in dropping one chamber are gains in visibility and accountability," two political scientists wrote in a 1996 book Cain co-edited, as part of an examination of California's legislature. "It is harder . . . for representatives in a single house to duck responsibility for their actions, and it is easier for the voters to assign responsibility."

California was looking into the option at the time, partly to save money, but in large part, Cain says, because of the same secretive conference-committee process familiar to Bay Staters today. "There was a growing frustration with political deals done through conference committee, at the end of sessions, often late at night," says Cain.

Other states have also periodically taken a serious look at unicameralism, and today at least a half-dozen states have lawmakers studying the idea, driven in part by the cost savings, says Jaret Gibbons, a Democratic state representative in Pennsylvania who has a dozen cosponsors for his bill to combine that state's Assembly and Senate. The Maine House of Representatives actually gave a majority vote last month to such a bill, although it lacked the two-thirds support needed for a constitutional amendment.

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