by Karl Kurtz
In an article in the July issue of State Legislatures magazine, "What Legislatures Need Now," Brian Weberg and I address the institutional challenges facing state legislatures today. In the article we compare the contemporary problems of legislatures to the prescriptions for change offered 40 years ago by an influential book, "The Sometime Governments," published by the Citizens Conference on State Legislatures. The book is long out of print and has no online presence. Here's what we say about it in the article:
The Citizens Conference on State Legislatures was a private nonprofit organization formed in 1964 to improve state legislatures. With a major grant from the Ford Foundation, it launched a 50-state study of legislatures in 1969 and published “The Sometime Governments: An Evaluation of the 50 American Legislatures” in 1971.
Based on criteria for “functional, accountable, informed, independent and representative” legislatures, the book evaluated state legislatures and ranked them from one to 50. The rankings caused a considerable stir among state lawmakers, and were an effective call to action: No state wanted to remain ranked in the bottom half of the list or to be below its neighbors or rivals.
The book contained both general recommendations for all states and specific recommendations for each legislature. The recommendations focused on such things as the length of the session, number of members, committee organization, facilities and staffing. They were highly prescriptive and specific.
Unfortunately, there wasn't room in the magazine article for excerpts from the book's 73 general recommendations to the states. Here are nine samples, using the numbering from the book:
1. Reduce the overall size of the legislature…. Although size reduction in a legislative body is extremely difficult to achieve, it has been done in some states … and needs to be accomplished in others …. There should be 100 or fewer members in the lower House. The combined size of both houses should be between 100 and 150.
2. Remove constitutional restrictions on session and interim time. The legislature should have authority to function throughout a two-year term; ideally, this authority should provide a flexible biennial session pattern that permits the legislature to convene, recess, and reconvene as it deems desirable….
8. Reduce the number of committees. Ideally, there should be from 10 to 15 committees in each house, parallel in jurisdiction….
14. Act on all bills. Committees should be required to report on all bills assigned to them, recommending for passage by the parent body those bills which enjoy the support of a majority of the members of the committee and killing all others.
27. Increase legislative compensation. No legislative salaries in the United States should be below the $10,000-a-year level. Compensation of legislators in the larger states should range from $20,000 to $30,000 a year.
43. Strengthen minority party role. Internal accountability as well as the capacity of all legislators to represent their constituents effectively depends upon the opportunity of minority party members to have an effective part in internal legislative affairs.
54. Strengthen staff support. Legislative research, fiscal, legal, and planning agencies should be adequately staffed to full utility and at suitable salary levels for professional qualification. Professional staffing should be at a level to enable the legislature to conduct continuous, year-round examination of state resources and expenditures as well as program review and evaluation of state agencies. This staff should also prepare fiscal notes accompanying all appropriation bills, evaluating their fiscal impact over the short and long term. Staff agencies should be upgraded to the level at which competent and timely service can be provided to every member of the legislature.
60. Individual offices. Provide private, individual offices for every member of the legislature, with nearby space for their assistants. The quality and amount of office space should not differ substantially between majority and minority party members.
73. Establish citizens commission on the legislature. As a means of cultivating generalized support for the legislature as an institution, a citizens commission should be created, by joint resolution of the legislature, to study its operations, facilities and needs and to recommend improvements….
Some of these recommendations of "The Sometime Governments" seem old hat today because so many legislatures acted on them. Many recommendations regarding staffing, transparency and committee procedures, for example, have been widely adopted and are taken for granted today.
Other standards in "The Sometime Governments" seem quaint:
- What’s so magical (and who cares) about the prescription to have “10 to 15 committees in each house?” Sure, there's still such a thing as having too many committees, and few people would advocate going back to the 1930s when 17 state houses of representatives had 40 or more committees. But "10 to 15" seems way too narrow and prescriptive.
- In an age when population growth has caused the ratio between citizens and legislators to soar—and therefore place pressure on the ability of legislators to serve such large constituencies—"The Sometime Governments" recommendation to reduce the number of members in the legislature to improve efficiency seems questionable at best. As many people are talking about growing the size of legislatures today as shrinking them.
- The legislative salary recommendations of "$20,000 to $30,000 a year" in larger states computes to $112,000-$169,000 in today’s dollars. No state provides a salary of more than $100,000 a year to their legislators. Those levels of salary are out of reach under the prevailing attitudes of cynicism and distrust toward politics.
Still other recommendations, like providing members with district offices and removing all constitutional restrictions on the length of sessions, have been adopted by some states but rejected by the majority of them.
Nonetheless, the recommendations of "The Sometime Governments" make interesting reading. Used copies are available online at alibris.com and other used book sites. Most legislative libraries and large depository libraries are likely to have copies.