Karl Kurtz 2/1/2014


Four decades strong: The 1970s

By Karl Kurtz

The powerful, poignant scene of Richard Nixon waving his famous V sign boarding a helicopter to depart the White House after his resignation as president was the backdrop—literally— to the creation of the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

It was 1974, and staff from the National Legislative Conference, the National Conference of State Legislative Leaders and the National Society of State Legislators had gathered in Albuquerque, N.M., to formalize the decision to merge. I was there representing the National Legislative Conference and remember interrupting our staff meeting to watch the memorable scene. 

The year before, those three organizations had contracted with Professor Alan Rosenthal at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics to survey legislators and staff about the benefits of a single national organization and to make recommendations about its structure. Rosenthal’s study became the blueprint when we formed the unified National Conference of State Legislatures. 

At the 1974 meeting in Albuquerque, the prominent conservative columnist James J. Kilpatrick was the featured speaker at a state dinner. In his remarks he drew analogies between Richard Nixon and Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, including Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth. 

As he compared Nixon to King Lear, a tall Montana rancher, dressed in tux, Stetson and cowboy boots—the husband of a state senator on the executive committee and a rock-ribbed conservative—had had enough. He rose from his seat at the head table, threw his glass of red wine at the white-dinner-jacketed Kilpatrick, and shouted, “Nonsense! It was the press that did Nixon in!” and stormed out of the hall. Kilpatrick paused a moment, wiped his face and jacket with a napkin, and said simply, “Horse manure,” and continued with his speech. 

And that’s when NCSL, the bipartisan voice of the states, was born. 

Takin' Care of Business

The National Conference of State Legislatures opened in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 1, 1975, and in Denver in April. The NCSL executive committee members selected the Mile High City as headquarters, based on their desire to be located away from Washington, D.C., and in a state capital. Denver won out for its central location, well-served airport, the presence of other state government associations and its attractiveness for recruiting staff. 

Massachusetts Senate President Kevin Harrington (D) was president, Tennessee House Minority Leader Tom Jensen (R) was president- elect and Minnesota Speaker Martin O. Sabo (D) was vice president. The staff officers were Bonnie Reese of Wisconsin and Eugene B. Farnum of Michigan. 

Earl Mackey, the previous executive director of the National Legislative Conference, became executive director, I became director of operations, and Jim Edgar, future governor of Illinois, became director of state services. The first person Edgar hired was William Pound, who then succeeded Mackey as executive director in 1987. Jerry Sohns was director of NCSL’s Washington, D.C., office, which focused on being the voice of the state legislatures in our national capital. 

The Disco Decade

Times, they were a-changin’ in post-Watergate America. Congress had enacted landmark general revenue-sharing legislation that gave money raised from the federal income tax back to states, cities, counties and townships. The program was remarkable in that it was enacted as a principle of federalism, not as a response to a state or local emergency. President Nixon supported the program, and his successor, Gerald Ford, championed the act’s renewal in 1976. The program lasted until 1986. Not until 2009, with the American Resource and Recovery Act, did the federal government give similar no-strings-attached temporary aid to cashstrapped state and local governments. 

In 1976, after two consecutive post-Watergate landslide elections in their favor, Democrats controlled the governorship and both chambers of the legislature in 27 states, and 22 states were under divided Republican/Democrat control. There was not a single state in which Republicans controlled the governorship and both chambers of the legislature—the only time in post-Civil War history when one of the two major parties was shut out of partisan control. In 1978 the Republican Party launched an unprecedented campaign to pump $1.75 million into state legislative races that year. 

In 1976, Jimmy Carter became the 22nd former state or colonial legislator to win the presidency, and the two candidates for vice president, Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale and Kansas Senator Bob Dole, spoke about federalism at NCSL’s second annual meeting in Kansas City. “The past record on federal-state relations is dismal,” said Mondale. “In recent years they have often been characterized by an attitude of arrogance and paternalism on the part of federal officials,” he said. 

Dole believed the solution to “the corruption of the Constitutional process is to amend the Constitution to provide the president with the item veto.” 

That same year, NCSL released a 30-minute documentary film, “The First Branch of Government: From Grass Roots to Law,” produced by award-winning filmmaker Charles Guggenheim. The story follows former Minnesota Representative Tom Berg as he attempts to pass a land-use planning bill through the Legislature. Many of the sights and sounds of that video are anachronistic today. But the story of constituents with conflicting desires, disagreement among interest groups, and the process of debate, negotiation and compromise in the legislature endure today.

 When NCSL was created, Wisconsin Senator Fred A. Risser, today’s longest-serving state legislator, had already served for 19 years and was minority leader of the Senate. Mike Madigan, currently the longest-serving speaker in the  nation, had served five years in the Illinois House.

In 1978, Patrick O’Donnell, the nation’s longest- serving principal legislative clerk or secretary, was first elected clerk of the Nebraska Unicameral. Susan Perkins, a speech writer for the Ohio Senate Republican caucus, won the then still-coveted Miss America title. And California voters enacted Proposition 13, which seriously limited state property taxes and dramatically changed the relationship between local governments and the Golden State. It gave rise to similar initiatives in other states, and by 1980, 30 similar measures were on ballots across the nation; 13 of them passed.

An Eye on Legislatures

All this was recorded here, in State Legislatures magazine. The first editor was Carol Weissert, who came from the National Legislative Conference and today is a distinguished professor and chair of Civic Education and Political Science at Florida State University. When the magazine moved to Denver in July 1975, Gene Brown took over. In those early days, the magazine was notoriously late, sometimes arriving on legislators’ desks an entire month behind its publication date. The magazine staff would celebrate every new issue with the whole office by passing around bottles of Boone’s Farm apple wine.

How times have changed. The magazine pages back then used a photo of cigars in an ashtray to illustrate a story on an NCSL meeting for legislative leaders, there was no advertising in the magazine, and computers were just beginning to revolutionize the work of legislatures in ways that seem primitive today.

Yet, articles from the ’70s also covered efforts to decriminalize marijuana, the crisis in funding of state and local pensions, and the rising cost of higher education. How times never change!                                             

It was a decade of redefining what America stood for and what Americans valued, and the bound copies of old magazines reflect that. In September 1978, an article covered a remarkable symposium entitled “The Search for a New Center in American Politics.” Quotes from the article include a wide array of political perspectives. Conservative pundit Kevin Phillips said, “The notion of the Union, both as an idea and as a matter of political geography, seems to be weakening.” Columnist George F. Will observed, “The people still feel they can work the levers of state government. This is not a feeling many people have toward the federal government anymore.” Tom Hayden declared, “The New Deal is dead.” And Jesse Jackson challenged, “If we are to save our society, the first mountain to scale and conquer is the mountain of race.”

Legislatures, too, were changing. Staffs were growing in number and becoming more sophisticated, especially in the areas of policy and support services. Computer technology was changing workloads, speeding up response times but also producing information overload. Rosenthal warned that “The legislator wants more opportunity, autonomy, power; the legislature needs more effort, teamwork, discipline. The result is an imbalance that threatens to undo the remarkable progress of the last decade.”

At the end of the decade, NCSL and the State Governmental Affairs Council conducted a national public opinion poll about the roles and responsibilities of state legislatures, finding that only 2 percent of the public viewed the performance of their state legislature as excellent, 29 percent said pretty good, 42 percent only fair, and 19 percent poor.

That gave NCSL—and the magazine—plenty of work to do during the 1980s. Stay tuned for a look at the big-hair decade in April.

Karl Kurtz is director of NCSL’s Trust for Representative Democracy.

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