The State of Staff: July/August 2009

In This Article

Print Friendly

Photo of legislative staffNCSL’S survey finds that after growth in the '70s and '80s, the number of legislative staff has leveled off.

By Karl Kurtz and Brian Weberg

Legislative staff are the unsung workhorses of the capitol. They are seldom studied, and many believe they are inadequately appreciated. 

So, the National Conference of State Legislatures conducted a new study that counted the number of staff employed by the 50 state legislatures, looked at how that number has changed over 30 years, and found out more about their characteristics. Key findings include:

  • After rapid growth in the 1970s and 1980s, the number of legislative staff has leveled off in the 1990s and 2000s.
  • Staff jobs are dominated by whites; racial and ethnic minorities are under-represented.
  • Women are well-represented among all staff but not in managerial ranks.
  • The vast majority of legislative staff view their work as a long-term career.
  • The top worry among managers is replacing senior staff planning to retire.

When NCSL did its first count of staff in 1979, legislatures were riding the big wave of reform and many were adding staff fast and sometimes furiously. Overall staff numbers peaked in NCSL’s 1996 census. Since then, growth has stopped and the curve has flat-tened out.

Differences Among States

All legislatures are not equal when it comes to staff numbers. Pennsylvania and New York continue to dominate the top two spots with nearly 3,000 staff in each legislature. At the other end of the spectrum is Vermont, with less than 100 staff during session. Many factors explain these differences, including state population and demographics, size of legislative districts, the size and complexity of state government, economic conditions, partisan competition and legislative tradition.

Vermont is the only legislature that has fewer than 100 staff. Both Dakotas employ a little more than 100 each, with Wyoming and Delaware coming in at 125 each.
Leaving out staff employed only during the session, North Dakota now claims the title, long held by Wyoming, for the smallest year-round, permanent staff with 32. Wyoming is now up to 39 permanent employees, most the result of adding a research office and a public relations function.

Most states rely primarily on their year-round, full-time permanent staff for support. However, five states—Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina and Virginia—each hire more than 300 temporary staff for the session only. The employment of session-only staff has declined since 1979, when they represented more than 37 percent of all legislative employees compared to only 19 percent in 2009. This is a result of lengthening sessions in many legislatures, busier interim schedules and the conversion of session-only positions into permanent ones.

The Partisan Percentage

The balance of partisan and nonpartisan staff has not changed significantly since 2003, another sign that legislative staffing has entered an era of stability. Partisan staff make up the majority of staff in about half the states, but in about a quarter of the states, mostly the smallest ones, all but a very few of them are nonpartisan.

The 2009 data provide a first-ever look at personal staff, defined as employees who work directly for a legislator in his or her capi-tol or district office. Personal staff total more than 11,000, almost one-in-three. By definition, these employees are partisan staff, and this is where much of the precipitous growth in partisan staff has occurred in the past few decades. It may also explain the high per-centage of total staff growth since 1979.

Nearly one-half of all personal staff are concentrated in California, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. They help members cope with the challenges of providing constituent services in districts with very large populations.

Today, the 10 legislatures with the most total staff employ 48 percent of all staff. By contrast, the 10 legislatures with the fewest staff employ just more than 4 percent.

Staffing as a Career

Seventy-three percent of respondents to the NCSL survey classified themselves as people who have already made legislative ser-vice a career or are likely to do so. That includes 77 percent of nonpartisan staff, and 58 percent of partisan staff—a higher proportion than might be expected given the high rate of turnover of partisan staff and the widely held view that partisan staffing is often a stepping stone to other positions in and out of government.

The top attraction for both groups was that they find the work challenging. For nonpartisan staff careerists, the next most appeal-ing aspects of the job were a good work environment, good work/life balance and the opportunity to do public service—all mentioned by more than 60 percent of the respondents.

For partisan staff they were enjoyment of the legislature, liking politics, and making a difference for the people of their state. More than twice as many partisan staff as nonpartisans checked off “I like politics” as one of the attractions of a legislative staff career.

NCSL also looked at generational differences in the appeal of legislative work and found only minor differences. Older staff mem-bers were more satisfied with the compensation than the youngest ones, as would be expected of those in higher salary brackets. The youngest group, aged 20 to 34, was much more likely to say that they like politics than older employees. Other than these findings, there were no differences in attitudes toward legislative staff careers among baby boomers, Gen Xers and Gen Yers.

One-third of the respondents planned to leave legislative service within the next five years. Of these, nearly half said that they are planning to retire. The likely retirees make up 16 percent of the total respondents to the survey. This number is comparable to other studies of the projected exodus of government workers because of aging baby boomers.

The other half of those who are planning to leave within five years say they want to seek other jobs with new challenges and better compensation.

Lack of Diversity

Ninety percent of the staff who responded to the survey are non-Hispanic whites. Among the U.S. population as a whole, though, only two-thirds of Americans fall into that category. African Americans and Hispanics each make up less than 5 percent of legislative staff compared to their national populations of 13 percent and 15 percent, respectively. This under-representation of racial and eth-nic minorities among legislative staff is similar to that of the nation’s 7,382 state legislators, although legislative staff appear to lag even further behind.

One reason for the comparative lack of diversity may be the historical dominance of whites among legislators: 86 percent of all legislators are white. Hiring in state legislatures has tended to be decentralized with multiple offices and agencies responsible for their own recruiting. Only in the last decade or so have legislatures brought in human resource managers to coordinate hiring practices and encourage diversity. As professional human resources management becomes more common in state legislatures, the representation of minorities among legis-lative staff is likely to improve.

It is also possible that the bias toward nonpartisan staff in the survey sample is not an accurate picture of diversity among staff. If the survey responses had included a higher proportion of personal staff for individual members—who are likely to hire staff that re-flect their constituencies—there might have been a somewhat higher proportion of racial and ethnic minorities.

The under-representation of minorities among legislative staff does not extend to women. Three-fifths of the respondents to the survey are women, yet only about one-quarter of lawmakers are. Professional women have found legislative service attractive, and the institution has been open to them. Women also tend to dominate clerical positions in legislatures.

But there is evidence of a glass ceiling. At top staff management levels, men still predominate: 20 percent of the men reported that they are executive managers compared to only 10 percent of the women. Women were slightly ahead of men at mid-management levels, and were substantially better represented in positions with little or no management responsibility.

Staff Concerns

Replacing the skills and experience of retiring senior staff was a top concern in the survey. The second most frequently mentioned staff management issue was maintaining adequate compensation. As one staffer lamented, “No one ever got elected to the legisla-ture on a promise to increase compensation of legislative staff.”

The last two management issues that scored “important” or higher were the related problems of dealing with turnover among legis-lators, and protecting and promoting the roles and values of the legislative institution. Nonpartisan staff, older staff, and staff from term-limited states were much more likely to be concerned with legislator turnover and maintaining institutional values than were partisan, younger staff or those from non-term-limited states.

Future Uncertain

This study was conducted in late 2008 and early 2009, as the employment ripple of economic recession was just beginning to reach legislative shores but before cutback measures such as furloughs, pay reductions and layoffs in legislatures became wide-spread.

It seems likely that the recession will force some rethinking and realignment of traditional staff structures, management practices and employment levels. Cutbacks will become more common than staff additions. The staff services and approaches that evolved and succeeded over the past 30 years may be in store for a tune up, or even an overhaul in some state legislatures.

CHECK OUT more details on NCSL’s staff surveys at www.ncsl.org/magazine

Survey Says
 

How important do you think each of the following legislative staff management issues will be in your state during the next five years? 
(Scale of 1-not important to 4-very important)
Total

  • Replacing retirees 3.3
  • Maintaining adequate compensation 3.2
  • Dealing with legislator turnover 3.0
  • Protecting values of legislature 3.0
  • Improving training 2.9
  • Staff turnover (not retirement) 2.7
  • Attracting/recruiting young people 2.6
  • Staff reductions 2.6
  • Balancing partisan/nonpartisan 2.5 staff roles
  • Increasing racial/ethnic diversity 2.2
  • Staff expansion 2.0
     

How We Did It

The study consisted of two parts. One was a census of staff conducted in early 2009 that asked personnel managers of staff offices in every state to provide numbers of employees in several categories. 

The second was an online survey in the last quarter of 2009 of all legislative staff for whom NCSL has e-mail addresses—those who are registered with NCSL as website users, have attended our meetings, asked us questions or otherwise signed up for services.

We received 1,954 responses to the survey, a sample of the 34,000 staff who work for the nation’s state legislatures. They represent a broad cross-section of the staff who draft bills, conduct research, perform program reviews or audits, work with legislative leaders, take care of constituent services for members, manage the flow of legislation, and provide logistical, security and information technology services.

There is, however, a bias in this sample of legislative staff. Partisan staff make up only 22 percent of our sample, while our census shows they are 43 percent of the total population of legislative staff.  This bias means we must take care in interpreting the data.

This survey is a follow-up to a similar one conducted in 2006 and reported in “Custodians of American Democracy” in the July/August 2006 issue of State Legislatures. That article focused on differences between partisan and nonpartisan staff and documented that non-partisan staff are on average substantially older than partisan staff, have been on the job longer and have higher levels of education. The new 2008 survey confirmed these findings, which are not reported here because they are so similar. 

Gen Xers Rare at the Top

As baby boomers—those born between 1946 and 1964—begin to retire among the top echelons of legislative staff, one might expect that they would be replaced by the next generation, often referred to as Gen X.

But so far, retiring baby boomer executives are being replaced by younger baby boomers. In our sample of nearly 2,000 legis-lative staff, only eight of the respondents who said that they are executive managers of offices or agencies are younger than 45.

One of those is Rob Marchant, chief clerk and director of operations for the Wisconsin Senate. Marchant took the job in 2004 at age 33, after five years as a drafting attorney, replacing staff icon Don Schneider who had held the post for the previous 26 years. Marchant had to fill some big shoes. 

He admits that his early days in the job were challenging, and that managing staff—some old enough to be his parents—was in-timidating at first. But he also is quick to add his gratitude to the baby boomers under his direction. “I was dependent on the people here to teach me the job and they were essential to a good transition.”

On the differences between boomers and his generation as leaders, Marchant thinks the key difference is the Gen X attraction to teamwork and accountability. “My generation buys into the team concept and seeks lots of input before making a decision. This model fits well in today’s legislature where there are so many stakeholders.”

To those Gen X legislative staff who achieve positions of leadership, he advises:

  • Don’t be afraid to put your ideas on the table, but also be respectful of institutional tradition.
  • Be prepared. Legislators will ask you to take a stand on tough questions.
  • Communication is the key to success, and informal forms of communication are most important. Seek understanding and input.
  • Communicate your desire to be held accountable.

On the matter of professional success and working across generational lines, Marchant reflects on advice offered by a colleague. He told him to “always look out for the legislature” and to articulate to colleagues “why you love this place.” “This is the area of common ground between the generations,” says Marchant.

Karl Kurtz is NCSL’s director of the Trust for Representative Democracy and Brian Weberg directs the Legislative Management Department.