Legislatures: Our Dynamic Institutions

By Pound, William T. | State Legislatures, January 1993 | Go to article overview

Legislatures: Our Dynamic Institutions


Pound, William T., State Legislatures


Each one is unique, yet they are all strikingly similar. Each has diverse responsibilities, yet they all share common problems. State legislatures--"the first branch of government"--are the most revitalized and changed government institutions in America and today they have a vastly increased capacity to govern.

Yet at the same time they find themselves challenged as seldom before. The movement to limit the terms of legislators has succeeded in one-third of the states. Public image of legislative performance has worsened in virtually every state, consistent with a growing negative attitude about government. In those states which allow the initiative, this process is being used to bypass or restrict the legislature in ways that are new to American government. Perceptions of ethical problems exist, and the public and press are elevating expectations about legislative behavior. This decline in public esteem and expression of voter distrust is not confined to the legislative branch, but, as is expected in representative government, finds its strongest expression there.

In this climate it may be easy to lose sight of how the modern state legislature has evolved and been strengthened.

Interested citizens, legislative staff, lobbyists and even lawmakers themselves may take the resources and capabilities that have fostered this change for granted, but state legislatures in 1993 have progressed more than any other government institution over the past 30 years. As recently as the 1950s, a national study referred to state legislatures as "19th-century institutions." But by the early 1980s, futurist John Naisbitt called state and local governments "the most important political entities in America," and events of the last decade have only enhanced their role. Legislatures have been transformed in a number of ways to make them equal partners in state government.

The reapportionment revolution of the mid-1960s was the catalyst for the modernization of state legislatures. State and federal courts handed down the one-person, one-vote rule, requiring equality of population in all representational districts. But the impetus for change had already begun.

The beginnings of the modern legislature can be traced back to 1901 when Wisconsin established the first permanent legislative staff by creating the legislative reference bureau. Before that, administrative functions of the legislatures were limited to the clerk and secretary, two positions derived from English parliamentary tradition. During the middle third of this century, a majority of states established legislative councils (the first council was established in Kansas in 1933) to allow the legislature to function during interim periods and give it some permanent research and legal capability independent of the executive branch or outside resources.

After World War II, specialized legislative staffing began to emerge, particularly in the fiscal area. California and Texas were among the first legislatures to establish a strong, independent budget development and analysis capability. Previously, legislatures merely ratified executive budgets--still the case in some states--or depended entirely on the executive branch for budget analysis.

Modernizing the state legislature, however, involved not only the growth of staff capacity, but the removal of many limits on sessions and salaries, and on what matters legislatures could consider. In 1941 only four legislatures held annual sessions. That number grew to 19 by 1962, to 35 in 1972 and to 43 today. Only Arkansas, Kentucky, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon and Texas retain biennial sessions.

State legislatures today can be categorized into three groups. The first are those that are highly professionalized, a group which includes highly urbanized states with large populations, such as California, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and New Jersey. …

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