The Nice Legislatures

The 'Nice' Legislature



Here’s a different take on how state legislatures should be compared, rated and ranked.

By Alan Rosenthal

Editor’s Note: Americans love rating and ranking just about everything, and states and legislatures are not immune from the comparisons. In the early 1970s, one of the first rankings of all 50 legislatures caused quite a stir when it was published showing California on top and Alabama last. Alan Rosenthal—a professor of political science at Rutgers University and the nation’s foremost expert on and champion of state legislatures—was especially mindful of the negative reaction the ranking of very different legislative bodies received. After much thought (more than 20 years, in fact) he wrote this parody in 1991 in response. He died last year. We thought it was about time to publish it.

Twenty years ago, the Citizens Conference on State Legislatures, which no longer exists, published a ranking of the 50 state legislatures, which are still very much in business. Although that ranking had considerable impact at the time, few legislators recall it today. Yet, the questions it addressed are still being posed, as is evidenced by the fact that we are asked repeatedly: “How does the {fill in the blank} legislature compare to legislatures in other states? How does it rank?”

People want to know where they stand. Legislative leaders want confirmation that their legislature is at the top. State house reporters want confirmation that their legislature is at the bottom. Political scientists want interval data that can be regressed on other variables in an eternal quest to discover principal determinants of legislative performance.

Measurement is the sine quo non of today. At the heart of President Bush’s strategy for America 2000, for example, are national standards, national examinations and state-level national assessments of educational progress. All of that on top of student and teacher proficiency exams, SATs, GREs, LSATs and the like. Unless something can be measured, it might as well not exist.

How FAIR Fared

Therefore, what state legislatures require today are not bigger budgets, higher salaries, more staff or large committee rooms. What they need is to have their measure taken. The earlier effort provides precedent. Funded by a $1 million grant from the Ford Foundation, the CCSL evaluation of the 50 states employed hundreds of items of information and assigned thousands of points. The result was the measurement of legislatures according to the degree to which they were functional, accountable, informed, independent and representative (FAIR). Each state legislature was ranked along each dimension, and when everything was lumped together California, New York and Illinois came out one, two and three, and Delaware, Wyoming and Alabama came out 48, 49 and 50.

Legislatures have changed dramatically since 1971. We can no longer be confident that those that used to be on top aren’t now at the bottom, those that used to be at the bottom aren’t at the top and those that once were in the middle aren’t now in a muddle. Moreover, the fact is that the earlier study was methodologically flawed. It assumed that the functional, accountable, informed, independent and representative legislature—that is, the FAIR Legislature was the model. But since life isn’t fair, why should the legislature be?

A new model is long overdue, and the one offered here strikes right at the periphery of the issue. It is based on the assumption that what we want is a NICE Legislature—one that we would like to visit, be with and even take to our bosoms. This legislature is Nourished, Inspired, Convenient and Enlightened. The task we set for ourselves was to rank state legislatures from one to 50 according to each of the four NICE dimensions and then average the four to provide an overall ranking. All of this may not be accurate, but it is scientific.

N is for Nourished

The Nourished Legislature, pedants might argue, is one that is stuffed with timely policy and political information. Not at all. It is simply one that is well-fed. A legislator cannot always lean on his or her staff. Lobbyists are also around, and along with them is the type of gastronomical sustenance available when one dines out in the state capital. The more and the better capital city restaurants are, the more likely legislatures can march on their stomachs—as indeed they must.

In order to eliminate subjectivity in our ranking of Nourishment, we relied on the 1991 MobileTravel Guide in rating restaurants in capital cities. The Mobile Guide awards one, two, three, four or five stars—or no stars at all. The formula we employed to arrive at a ranking is simple but elegant, nonetheless.

Let N = nourishment score

X = number of restaurants

Y = number of stars

Then N = (X+Y) (Y/X) = (XY+Y2)/(X)

Even such a discriminating measure goes only so far—to the West Coast, as a matter of fact, because the Mobile Guide only covers the 48 contiguous states, leaving Alaska and Hawaii in limbo. (We intend to make a field trip to Juneau and Honolulu and sample restaurants for ourselves, but for now Alaska and Hawaii are NA—information “not available.”)

States range in Nourishment from the top-ranked Georgia—thanks to Atlanta’s 62 listed restaurants with a total of 145 stars—followed by Massachusetts, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado to the bottom-ranked Jefferson City, Mo., and Pierre, S.D., which appear to have no restaurants whatsoever.

I is for Inspired

The Inspired Legislature, political scientists claim, is one that is not only well-fed but also well-led. Let’s not jump to conclusions. Speakers of the house and presidents of the senate preside, appoint and refer. But do they inspire? What really provides inspiration (spiritual nourishment, if you will)—as indicated by the Friday schedule of committee meetings before Saturday afternoon football games during the months of a legislature’s interim periods—is the state university’s football team. And also the state’s basketball team. Nothing matches the lure these sports have for legislators, with the possible exception of the legislator’s own reelection campaign.

Ranking legislatures on Inspiration, we rated the Division I state university football teams on the basis of their won-lost records during the 1989 season. (A particularly good year.) States without Division I teams were simply out of luck. We also rated the state’s basketball teams, from private and public colleges, on the basis of their record in the NCAA tournament in 1990. (Another particularly good year.)

The football and basketball rankings were averaged to produce the overall Inspiration standings. You would anticipate that states whose schools favor athletics over academic pursuits would place high. Indeed, they did, with Nevada, North Carolina and Arkansas at the top. Down below are Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Vermont, where mind overshadows muscle.

C is for Convenient

The Convenient Legislature, according to the canons of reform, has the most efficient procedures, the latest in data-processing equipment and the best-appointed restrooms—a legislature with all the modern conveniences. But that is not what we have in mind. In the NICE scheme, the Convenient Legislature is easy to get to and not remote; it is near at hand, though not underfoot. The key indicator for present purposes is the travel time from Newark International Airport to the state capital. Why from Newark? It is not only that I myself travel from Newark (if required to leave New Jersey), but it is an interesting—albeit little-known fact that more people who fly to state capitals come from Newark than from anywhere else. Reciprocally, Newark is the preferred destination of most people traveling from capital cities to some other place in the United States.

The Convenience ranking is based on the travel time from Newark International Airport to the airport serving the state capital, as reported in the Official Airline Guide (North American Edition). We do not consider the number of flights daily, whether a connection has to be made at O’Hare or Hartsfield, or the nature of surface transportation from airport to state house. Such considerations would only muddy the waters, which are none too clear to begin with.

Since Newark and Trenton are only about 50 miles apart, one might predict that New Jersey would rank first on Convenience. No way! That is, there’s no way to get directly from here to there. It takes three hours to fly from Newark to Trenton, because it is necessary to stop over in Philadelphia. Getting back is even longer—five hours, because one has to fly first to Washington and then to Philadelphia to get to Newark from Trenton. Despite all of its other attributes, New Jersey ranks only 18th on the Convenience scale.

As removed as Harrisburg, Penn., is from everyday life, it is the quickest place to get to and even quicker to get away from. It is at the top. Albany, N.Y., Hartford, Conn., Concord, N.H., and Raleigh, N.C., take only a little while more. Good for them! At the bottom of the scale are Delaware, Maryland, Vermont and Washington, the capitals cities of which have no local airport. Why should anyone have to fly into Philadelphia, Baltimore, Burlington or Seattle if that is not where they are going! Although this is not the place to make recommendations, it is our belief that public policy would be better served if these states constructed airports at their capitals. Hawaii and Alaska also rank low among the states, even though they have capital airports, because intentionally or inadvertently they located their legislatures as far from Newark as possible.

E is for Enlightened

The Enlightened Legislature, many would claim, is the legislature with the most light, the largest amount of sunshine. “Rain, rain go away, come again on a nonsession day” is an axiom of legislative life. Sunshine must matter, since all the states have “Sunshine Laws” mandating it. Nevertheless, and to the contrary notwithstanding, this is not what we mean by enlightenment. For us, the Enlightened Legislature is one in which the burdens of members are made lighter by dint of the critical information and sage advice supplied to them.

There is no source of information and advice that is more trustworthy than the National Conference of State Legislatures, which communicates to all 50 states through its monthly magazine, State Legislatures. It is amazing to observe legislators and legislative staff, as well as citizens throughout the state, checking the postal boxes at the time of the month when the magazine is due to arrive. I have seen legislators—confident veterans holding top leadership positions—frantic because of a slight delay in delivery.

Our measure of enlightenment, therefore, is as direct as anything can be. It is the circulation of State Legislatures magazine in each state. Curiously, the greatest number of magazines goes to Washington, D.C., which isn’t a state at all. That undoubtedly explains why Congress is so enlightened. The most populous states, such as California and New York, can be expected to receive more copies than the least populous states, such as Alaska and Wyoming, and they do. They don’t deserve any advantage. Thus, in constructing our index, we have controlled for population, ranking states on the per capita circulation of the magazine.

It should hardly come as a surprise that New Hampshire, with its large house and small population, ranks first. Alaska  and Vermont are highly enlightened too. But California, the nation’s big winner in the congressional reapportionment sweepstakes, needs to buy more copies of NCSL’s magazine if it hopes to climb out of last place on enlightenment.

So Where Does All This Lead?

If we average Nourishment, Inspiration, Convenience and Enlightenment, we arrive at a combined ranking, shown in the table. Some of you may argue that the table doesn’t have a leg to stand on, but it does. It definitively shows which legislatures are NICE, which are NICE-er and which are NICE-est.

The highest ranking states are precisely those that our theory of legislative systems would have predicted. The Connecticut Legislature ranks NICE-est overall, possibly because it has never enacted an income tax. Georgia comes in second, Arkansas third and Colorado and Rhode Island are tied for fourth. I am naturally disappointed that my home state, New Jersey, ranks last. But I am confident that, if the Legislature increases the appropriation for Rutgers—The State University—New Jersey will soar in the next ranking.

Members of the legislatures that rank high will take pride in their accomplishment—“We’re No. 1”—while those that are low down will express chagrin—“We can’t be 50th, we’re at least 48th.”

But the proud ought not rest on their laurels and the distressed not despair. A new Armenian restaurant may open in the capital city, a college quarterback may lose eligibility, an airline may go belly up and the word about State Legislatures magazine may spread like wildfire through a state.

Rankings are not like incumbents. Rankings change. But until they do, this one should serve nicely.

Making legislatures NICE has been partly heuristic and partly practical. The scheme is intended as a contribution to methodological knowledge in the social sciences. We are confident that, decades from now, our colleagues will still be citing this work in their own research. We trust, moreover, that our ranking will buttress those whose intuition and prejudice need authoritative backing and ceteris paribus, will assist in the never-ending struggle for legislative improvement.

For the nonce, we hope that this work proves helpful to all those who have to deal with state legislatures—representatives of Common Cause, hard- and software salesmen, certified consultants, stray missionaries, uprooted staff and the many legislators who—involuntarily because of term limits or voluntarily because of simple wanderlust—want to try legislative life in some other state.

How NICE is Your Legislature?

How States Ranked on NICE-ness, 1991

1.     Connecticut

2.     Georgia

3.     Arkansas

4.     Colorado

5      Rhode Island

6.     Iowa

7.     New Hampshire

8.     Virginia

9.     Arizona

10.   New Mexico

11.   North Carolina

12.   Massachusetts

13.   Indiana

14.   Minnesota

15.   Oklahoma

16.   Tennessee

17.   Ohio

18.   Utah

19.   Mississippi

20.   Kansas

21.   New York

22.   Nevada

23.   Hawaii*

24.   Louisiana

25.   South Carolina

26.   Pennsylvania

27.   Wyoming

28.   West Virginia

29.   Alaska*

30.   Nebraska

31.   Texas

32.   Montana

33.   Alabama

34.   Idaho

35.   North Dakota

36.   Florida

37.   Maine

38.   Maryland

39.   Kentucky

40.   Michigan

41.   Vermont

42.   California

43.   Wisconsin

44.   Illinois

45.   Delaware

46.   South Dakota

47.   Oregon

48.   Washington

49.   Missouri

50.   New Jersey

*Overall ranking of Alaska and Hawaii based only on ICE.

 Additional Resources

NCSL Resources

Share this: 
We are the nation's most respected bipartisan organization providing states support, ideas, connections and a strong voice on Capitol Hill.

NCSL Member Toolbox


7700 East First Place
Denver, CO 80230
Tel: 303-364-7700 | Fax: 303-364-7800


444 North Capitol Street, N.W., Suite 515
Washington, D.C. 20001
Tel: 202-624-5400 | Fax: 202-737-1069

Copyright 2015 by National Conference of State Legislatures