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Strong Legislatures Reflect Best of the Past, Look to the Future

By Natalie Wood | Aug. 2, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print


Nevada Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson is a Democratic attorney and the first African American to hold that chamber’s leadership position. He grew up in Los Angeles, played college football and now represents a district in the Las Vegas metro area. Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke is a Republican rancher who grew up in Twin Falls, about 130 miles southeast of the capital, Boise. He’s the longest-serving speaker in Idaho history and represents a district that is about as different from Vegas as it could be.

Despite their differences, these two speakers have something very important in common: The weight of the past—and the many people who served and worked under their domes before them—influences their philosophy about preserving the institution. Both walk past photo walls of predecessors every day that impact their thinking.

“Sometimes,” Bedke says, “I will look at those pictures, and the thought runs through my mind: ‘What would they think, and have things changed when it comes to the dynamics of the building, the gossip—or is it the same that it’s always been?’”

Frierson knows the feeling. “Every day, I look at those pictures and I’m humbled,” he says. “Though I think they would be shocked by the diversity throughout the body and the fact that we have an African American speaker of the Assembly.”

History and tradition, along with deliberation, debate and public participation, are hallmarks of the legislative process. But taking the time to reflect on a legislature’s past and future trajectory can feel like a luxury when coupled with other facts of legislative life, such as session limits, deadlines, pressing policy matters, district needs, partisanship, campaign cycles and all manner of outside demands. Self-reflection, and the willingness to make change as a result, is a necessary exercise in ensuring a strong, enduring legislative branch.

Institutional Evolution

Fifty years ago, the release of “The Sometime Governments: A Critical Study of the 50 American Legislatures” represented a watershed moment in legislative history. It was more than a reflection. The study evaluated and ranked state legislatures on a series of criteria: functional, accountable, informed, independent and representative. It sparked institutional change, including a movement for legislatures to meet more regularly and give themselves, rather than the governor, the ability to decide when to meet. Many, though not all, of the recommendations were adopted by legislative bodies over subsequent decades, so much so that 10 years ago, in a piece titled “What Legislatures Need Now,” NCSL declared that many of the reforms were “already accomplished or no longer as relevant.”

Those criteria, however, remain a relevant touchpoint in institutional evolution. Drawing from a 2000 “Legislatures of the Future” study produced by the NCSL Legislative Staff Coordinating Committee, it was suggested in 2010 that legislative institutions address tough questions about growing public cynicism and mistrust, the negative effects of partisan polarization, the appropriate balance between legislative and executive branch authority, the public’s ability to access and participate in the legislative process and, most important, the obligations of members to the institution.

Through 2020, some of these issues were addressed in fits and starts by different state legislatures, by NCSL and its polarization study and, in a public and wholesale way, by the nation’s largest legislative body, the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives (at 400 members, the New Hampshire House is a close second). In 2019, the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress began holding hearings about a variety of self-identified deficiencies, such as streamlining legislative procedures; creating a leadership pipeline; boosting staff diversity, recruitment, retention and compensation; diffusing polarization; and improving technology and administrative efficiencies. The bipartisan committee has been keen to lean on state legislatures as a model and draw from their practices. Nearly 30 of the committee’s recommendations have been adopted by the House, and its work has been reauthorized through the end of the current biennium.

Then came the COVID-19 crisis. Innovation, fluidity, flexibility and creative problem-solving were at the heart of the legislative response to the pandemic. The need to legislate and represent constituencies over the past year required legislatures to operate creatively. They convened in concert venues, voted from their cars and at their kitchen tables, and debated between plexiglass barriers. They transitioned their entire legislative staff operations to remote work in a weekend. They accommodated and expanded pandemic-friendly public participation through a variety of approaches, in streaming sessions, allowing people to testify and observe remotely, encouraging written testimony, and providing limited access to in-person or virtual hearings.

Legislatures across the country also pushed back on what many felt was executive overreach in responding to the pandemic’s challenges. Nearly all legislatures considered measures in 2020 and ’21 aimed at curbing governors’ emergency powers, and at least 18 passed changes giving the legislative branch a more active, consultative oversight role in responding to emergencies and appropriating emergency funds. Another five are striving to give the legislature the ability to call itself into special session, although most will need citizen approval to change their constitutions.

The full impacts of the pandemic have yet to be assessed. But as legislators and staff reflect on what it has meant for the institution, it’s a good time for deeper introspection. Peverill Squire, professor of political science at the University of Missouri and author of “The Evolution of State Legislatures,” sees another change period on the horizon. “Over the last 120 years we’ve had these 40-year periods where the legislatures have changed significantly,” he says, “and I think we’re at the end of one of those periods and moving into the beginning of another one. We’ve had a reluctance to sort of grow government, and there was a great interest in limiting government … and I think we may be on the cusp of arguing over whether that’s a good approach or not. I think you may see in a number of legislatures, particularly those that have fewer institutional resources than others, some desire to begin to build up.”

One compelling reason for doing so, Squire argues, is that some legislatures that failed to make related changes during the mid-20th century may feel as if they are falling short of a duty to be an effective counterweight to the governor. Beyond that specific reason, he says there’s a more fundamental question: “We are asking more and more of state legislatures—but are they keeping up with the demand?”

Investing in the Institution

To answer that, legislatures may need to rethink what it means to invest in the institution. To evolve past being “sometime governments,” legislatures took tangible, measurable steps to increase capacity. They expanded the physical footprint of the institution, gaining more space in state capitols. They hired more staff. They tweaked the length of their sessions, closely examined the number of members serving in the body and focused on committee processes. But “investment” in 2021 and beyond may very well look quite different. And the beauty of the American experiment is that the notion of investment can vary from state to state.

NCSL Executive Director Tim Storey, a longtime student of state legislatures, believes that while their foundations are strong, democratic institutions must be better equipped to manage the ever-increasing volume and complexity of modern and future issues. “The number of American citizens, the number of lobbyists, the number of media outlets and channels for communication, the amount of information coming at legislators and staff through tweets and DMs and Instagram and TikTok—that’s all grown exponentially,” he says, using the abbreviation for direct messages. “What hasn’t grown, not even a tiny bit, is the number of hours in the day.”

Investment might mean devoting scarce time and resources to training and professional development to help lawmakers learn not just about policy issues, but also about how to manage information and competing demands. As demands on legislators grow, so do demands on staff, and they, too, can benefit from specialized training. That’s exactly why West Virginia House Speaker Roger Hanshaw (R) prioritizes sending fellow lawmakers and staff to trainings and conferences—opportunities he considers invaluable. “Because our legislatures are 50 working laboratories of democracy, when we confront the same problems, getting together and learning from each other saves time, heartburn and heartbreak,” he says.

People wondered how I knew colleagues on the other side of the aisle cared about certain issues. Well, most of them came to get a cookie. —Margaret O’Brien, Michigan Senate secretary

Investment might mean taking a closer look at the levels of legislator pay—a politically tricky and often vexing matter—or it might mean examining how to attract a diverse mix of people to legislative service. In Nevada’s biennial, citizen Legislature, Frierson sees the issues as intertwined. “Folks think that state legislators earn $250,000 a year,” he says. “They don’t know that we earn less than $9,000 every other year. … That’s not how you get quality candidates to serve, so we are going to have to invest in the institution so that we continue to have quality public servants—not because anybody needs to get wealthy doing this, but because folks can’t afford to not take care of their family. We increasingly struggle with finding folks to serve.”

Nevada Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D) echoes the notion that her state’s strength lies in its diversity, including the various points of view that a citizen legislature facilitates. Those working in a citizen legislature have non-legislative jobs and are experts in their fields, whether as teachers, health care workers, miners or small-business owners.

“Those perspectives are meaningful,” Cannizzaro says. “When I think about investing in ourselves, I think it’s making sure we are taking the time to preserve and honor traditions, that we’re taking the time to promote diversity and diversity of thought, and having deliberative conversations that are meaningful, that result in good policy that solves a problem. The more we can do that, the more we allow the institution to endure. That’s how you create a strong institution that doesn’t just exist because a particular person may be in office at a particular time.”

Hanshaw agrees that robust deliberation and a variety of fresh perspectives is a sign of institutional strength. For this type of dialogue to flourish, he believes civil discourse and in-person, interpersonal dynamics are important for legislatures moving forward. Historically, West Virginia’s compact geography has helped on this front, and he hopes it will be the same in the future. “Because we are a relatively small state, 41st in size, most of the members have been to all corners of West Virginia,” he says. “They have seen the different regional economies of each district. That makes it far easier than it otherwise might be to have empathy or understand the positions a colleague takes on different issues, which can matter when it comes to sending one part of the state aid or revenue.”

In the eyes of Michigan Senate Secretary Margaret O’Brien, a former legislator, investment in the institution can be boiled down to three things: “You need to invest in your staff, in your colleagues and in yourself.” To invest in oneself by taking advantage of educational opportunities, trainings and conferences is crucial, she says, even though it can feel like a luxury to do so. To invest in colleagues, she encourages legislators to reach out to one another, whether it happens during a quiet period on the floor, in pursuit of co-sponsorship on a bill—or while munching on a chocolate chip cookie. From the start of O’Brien’s legislative career, both when she held office and now that she’s a staffer, her jar of home-baked cookies has been a powerful relationship-building tool. “When I was an elected official,” she says, “people wondered how I knew colleagues on the other side of the aisle cared about certain issues. Well, most of them came to get a cookie.”

Lastly, in all legislatures, but particularly in a full-time, term-limited one like Michigan’s, staff become a source of authority on issues, meaning they have the knowledge, experience and know-how to be effective, O’Brien says. Investing in staff could mean anything from identifying key gaps in staff roles to examining staff pay, from providing tools for on-the-job training to digging deep into why staff remain in legislative employment and why they look elsewhere.

Staff Matter

All four legislative leaders believe a strong staffing structure is integral to a successful 21st century institution. To Bedke, in Idaho’s part-time Legislature, staff are integral to ensuring the legislative branch is an effective counterweight to the executive. Sufficient staffing expertise, counsel, research and economic analysis means the Legislature will be able to go up against “the bully pulpit” of the governor, he says.

Staff matter, not just because of their experience and expertise, or because they bolster the capacity of the legislative branch, but also because they often assume the role of preserving legislative records and institutional memory. As O’Brien puts it, “We are often the first resources, the first steps to all elected officials, and it’s important that we work to maintain the history and traditions of the institution.”

Learning lessons from a walk down legislative memory lane, asking and answering big-picture questions and attempting broad organizational reforms are all options as state legislatures position themselves for the next five, 10 or 400 years. No matter the strategy, the people who are the institution are the common thread. Storey reminds us why: “When we talk about the legislative institution, it often conjures up the image of these big heavy granite buildings filled with marble and beautiful domes. But what the institution is really about is the flesh and blood, the human beings that make it work at any given point in history.”

Natalie Wood is the director of NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening.

This story was first published in the Summer 2021 edition of State Legislatures magazine.

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