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Citizen legislators - alive and well.

The number of lawmakers listing their occupations as full-time legislators increased dramatically between 1976 and 1986, leading some to wonder if the citizen lawmaker was facing extinction. A new study shows they are alive and well, but struggling to balance their work and their legislative duties.

By day, a state senator. By night, a cop working the streets of the inner city. Minneapolis homicide/burglary division Sergeant Pat McGowan spent the last session of the Minnesota Legislature playing the dual roles of state senator and policeman because he refused to allow his partner to work the streets alone at night. He arrived at the Capitol every morning at 7, returned home at 5 that evening, slept from 5 to 9 and was on the street by 10.

Senator McGowan has a lot of company. Delegates, representatives and fellow senators in citizen legislatures across the country play a balancing act each session with jobs, family and the duties of government.

A State Legislatures article in 1986 asked if the citizen legislator was becoming extinct after an NCSL study showed an 8 percent increase in the number of legislators who listed their jobs as full-time lawmakers. Three percent of lawmakers nationwide listed themselves as full-time legislators in 1976. That number grew to 11 percent in 1986 and 15 percent in 1993, according to a new NCSL study.

The percentages have grown with the transformation of some legislatures to full-time and year-around--a movement that began in the late '70s--in such states as Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, New Jersey and Ohio.

And the which-is-better-citizen-vs.-career-legislature debate began at the same time when those legislatures decided that--because of the increasing complexity of society and the laws it seemed to require--state government was fast requiring full-time attention.

Although the number of career legislators showed impressive growth, particularly between 1976 and 1983, 85 percent of the nation's state lawmakers still combine legislative service with another vocation.

Frenetic Lifestyle

The life of a citizen legislator is not one of any particular leisure, as McGowan can attest. So can Representative Bob Maddox of Connecticut.

Numismatist Maddox is owner of two coin shops and works as a part-time sales associate at Macy's. Running his own business and Macy's flexible scheduling allow him to devote time to the General Assembly, too.

The schedule may become hectic, but Maddox likes it that way. He believes that a danger for a full-time career legislator is "they sometimes lose touch." And he draws on his own experiences as a businessman, as well as employee of a large corporation doing business in the state of Connecticut, as litmus tests for the laws he passes as a legislator.

"We--the accountants, tradespeople, housewives, retired people, students--who are in the legislature represent society. When it goes to developing public policy and passing laws, we represent the society they will affect," he says.

For some citizen legislators, the skills learned in their professions are translated to the statehouse floor. "You learn when to insist, when to bend and when to compromise," notes horse trainer Cheryl Rivers of Vermont. Though she's talking about training Morgans, she laughs and adds that those same skills come in handy in her job as state senator.

On a muggy Maryland summer morning, state Delegate Marsha Perry zips up her down-filled jacket and steps out onto the ice of an indoor rink amid a flurry of flying pucks and hockey sticks. The power skating instructor, who adds the finesse and speed of figure skating to the power and brawn of hockey, explains, "Women, traditionally, have not been part of teams. In fact, women generally have been strongly individualistic, especially women legislators. I think the ability to work with teams, especially taking the weak and strong and making the team stronger, certainly helps in the legislature."

A Matter of Perspective

Occupations also tend to give the legislative process a certain perspective.

"When you have members disagreeing and arguing, it's not nearly as bad as the engine quitting in a single-engine plane," says Rick Halford, Alaska Senate president, a commercial pilot and guide.

"And when you're called to see the governor when he's angry about you not supporting his bills--that's not nearly as bad as following a wounded bear into an alder thicket," he adds.

Colorado Representative Jim Dyer says that lawmaking, as well as life, can be a matter of perspective. A career Marine officer who served three tours of duty in Vietnam as a field artillery captain, he lists his occupation as "poet/warrior." "Poet/warrior is basically a yin/yang statement. The poet is my gentler side. So, I can be both. I try to reflect that in the legislative side. I want to be socially, as well as fiscally, responsible." Dyer carried a children's health bill through the Colorado legislature, a socially responsible measure. On the fiscal side, he then worked on the conference committee that totally reformed the state workers' comp system--a law, he added, "the unions hate."

As a part-time legislator, Maddox of Connecticut feels his continued interaction with citizens through his business is a strength. "Anyone who does the job |of legislator~ today wears that hat wherever he goes. And if you use the knowledge you receive, you can set better policy. You can deter some of the real alienation of citizens from state government," he says.

Although people with varied occupations add unique experiences to the legislative mix, full-time lawmaking is also a valuable job.

Senator David Helbach says Wisconsin is a mix of citizen and full-time legislators. "If you want a leadership position," warns the former majority leader, "you have to be here full time. But I think the citizen legislature has its place. The ideal, if you handle the ethics and if you have the opportunity, is to mix full and part time."

He also points out that, at least in Wisconsin, "part time does not put a legislator closer to the grass roots. The people who are part time are in a higher income bracket than full-time legislators. And part-time people are going back to their jobs while we full-time people are out on the street, listening to people."

The legislature as a career also has its drawbacks.

"In a career legislature, people don't have any other experience or perspective," says Alan Rosenthal of the Eagleton Institute, Rutgers University. "The survival instinct becomes stronger. There's nowhere to go and nothing to come back to. The lust for survival, to be re-elected to your career, justifies anything you have to do."

Best of Both Worlds

But the art of lawmaking may have moved past the stage where it can be completely developed by citizens. "A citizen legislator who reforms the legislature every session might be fine in the movies--but it won't work in real life," observes Senator Jim Lack of New York. "There is the complexity of budgets, the relationships of the legislature with the federal and local governments, the complexity of the issues we face today."

He points out that in states such as New Hampshire, a part-time legislature can work, but states like New York and California have 18 million people whose needs require a full-time law-making body.

One of a minority who lists a job other than lawmaking (69 percent of New York legislators list themselves as full-time lawmakers), Lack, an attorney, adds, "We need to explore the middle ground. I like being a citizen legislator. We don't need necessarily professional people, but professional actions. Those can be accommodated by a good, hardworking group of individuals." "Hard-working" is the key phrase.

"I think we're fooling ourselves if we think there's any difference between part-time and full-time legislators. Once you're here, you notice that those who are most effective are those who put in the time," comments Minnesota Representative Pam Neary, who lists her occupation as community activist after an extended period as a lobbyist for non-profit organizations. "I think politicians have allowed the public to believe they can have full-time involvement with only part-time people."

Neary says she ran for office because she thought "being a legislator would be compatible with being a mom."

She's found, however, "it's a hard thing to juggle with families. That's why I think a lot of women legislators are not mothers with kids 4 or 5 years old."

Rivers admits she concentrates on training horses because of the flexibility of the schedule. "Vermont is one of the bastions of the citizen legislature, and we're proud of it. But I represent 60,000 people, and Vermonters expect to be able to call us on the phone with any personal problem they may have with state government. It's difficult to earn a living off-session and still give constituents the service they expect--but no one would ever consider doing away with the citizen legislature."

Minnesota Senator Dean Johnson, a Lutheran minister and good friend of police Sergeant McGowan, echoes the sentiments. "I wish we could be a citizen legislature. But the public demands that we be full time. It's a yes/no situation. They say, 'Yes, take care of all these issues, but, no, don't take much time in St. Paul in session."

"Anyone who thinks legislating anywhere in the country is a part-time commitment TABULAR DATA OMITTED is nuts," notes Louise Miller, a Washington music teacher and state representative.

Actually, if lawmakers listed as retirees, homemakers or students (9 percent of all legislators according to the newest NCSL survey) and who have no other employment besides the state legislature were added to the full-time rolls, the numbers rise to about 25 percent of all legislators.

In fact, although she considers herself a full-time legislator, Miller listed her occupation as music teacher because "the public perception of a full-time legislator in this state is not good." And in Wisconsin, not one lawmaker listed his occupation as full-time legislator although the number of careerists has been estimated at 54 percent.

"Everything is moving toward more and more full-time," notes Rosenthal. "The only way to keep from going full time is to hold down salaries. If salaries are low, you certainly have a citizen legislature but |low salaries~ are not fair, and they're probably not right."

Defending the Downtrodden

And even in a low-salaried, citizen legislature, there will be people who devote themselves to full-time legislative work.

Nebraska may well be a textbook example of a citizen legislature. Base salary? $12,000. Legislative schedule? Mid-January to late June. Top occupations of the 49 legislators? Farmer, 8, and lawyer, 8.

Within that legislative body are three who list themselves as full-time legislators. And then there's Senator Ernie Chambers, whose occupation is "Defender of the Downtrodden."

Chambers has been a Nebraska legislator for 23 years. He lives on his legislative salary and the stipend paid by organizations for speeches. "My needs are simple," he explains.

"My goal is to get wise and just laws enacted and to defend people from injustice," he says. It's a goal to which he devotes all his time. "When people have reached rock bottom, when they have no place else to turn to, they call me."

Who Are These People?

Excluding the 15 percent who label themselves as full-time lawmakers, who are those people sitting in our state legislatures?

As has been the case since the inception of state government, lawyers top the list of other occupations at 16 percent. But their numbers have decreased. In 1976, 22 percent of legislators were attorneys. That number dropped to 16 percent in 1986 and remained the same in 1993. Lawyer lawmakers are found most often in the South where they make up a quarter of all legislators.

Stringent disclosure laws, as well as lawyers' ability to advertise, seem to be two of the reasons behind the drop in numbers. An added factor might be the increased time needed and complexity of state government that cuts into the time necessary to run a successful law practice.

The percentage of business owners in the legislature has dropped: 16 percent in 1976, 14 percent in '86 and 10 percent in '93. Increases in session length, the heightened complexity of issues that need to be addressed and the upward spiral of campaign costs are cited as factors in the decline.

Legislators with agricultural backgrounds make up 14 percent of the Midwest's legislatures and 11 percent in the West. Nationwide, the number has decreased from 10 percent of all legislators in 1976 and 1986 to 8 percent in 1993.

In general, there has been remarkable stability in the occupations represented in state legislatures. The statistics from 1976, 1986 and 1993 varied only by about 2 percent or less--meaning that about the same number of artists, educators, accountants, engineers, architects, consultants and others are the people who are governing the states.

Retirees Dominate New Hampshire (and Other Fascinating Occupational Facts)

Full-time Legislator Pennsylvania: 77.08% New York: 68.72% Wisconsin: 63.39% Massachusetts: 56.00% Michigan: 50.68% Illinois: 41.81% Ohio: 38.63% California: 36.67% Hawaii: 32.89% Connecticut: 23.53%

Attorney Virginia: 39.29% Texas: 34.25% Louisiana: 31.25% New Jersey: 29.17% Kentucky: 26.81% Florida: 26.25% South Carolina: 25.88% Rhode Island: 23.00% Connecticut: 22.99% North Carolina: 22.94%

Agriculture North Dakota: 31.97% South Dakota: 26.67% Montana: 26.67% Idaho: 23.81% Iowa: 23.33% Wyoming: 21.11% Nebraska: 16.33% Kansas: 15.15% Alaska: 13.33% Missouri: 13.20%

Retired New Hampshire: 33.49% North Carolina: 15.88% Maine: 15.05% South Dakota: 14.29% Vermont: 12.78% Idaho: 12.38% Wyoming: 12.22% Kansas: 12.12% Montana: 12.00% South Carolina: 11.18%

Business Owner Tennessee: 25.00% Alaska: 23.33% Oregon: 22.22% Georgia: 19.22% West Virginia: 17.91% California: 17.50% South Carolina: 16.47% Louisiana: 15.28% Kentucky: 15.22% Arkansas: 14.81%

Education West Virginia: 17.61% Alabama: 14.29% Rhode Island: 11.33% Delaware: 11.29% Vermont: 11.11% Indiana: 10.00% Montana: 10.00% Arizona: 10.00% Nevada: 9.52% Minnesota: 9.45%

Source: NCSL

Sometimes a Poetic Notion

Newspaper accounts, legislative topics or mere whimsy provide inspiration for the unofficial poet laureate of the Nebraska Legislature, Senator Ernie Chambers.

The poetry or rhymes, as he calls them, run the gamut from scathing--a poetic attack on conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh drew barbs on the Omaha World-Herald editorial page--to whimsical. He left copies of a rhyming riddle, "Talk May Be Cheap, But Words Are Priceless," on the desks of fellow lawmakers.

The letters of the first words in one of the stanzas spelled out: "I have played a trick on you didn't I?"

To which "a humble admirer" responded with his own poem, "But Everything Has Its Cost (Reflections on Talk May Be Cheap, But Words Are Priceless)." The first letters of the first words of each line of that poem spelled out: "It did not fool me for a minute."

Chambers' poems are drawn from newspaper headlines, "Juvenile Court Judge Resigns Over Parental Notification Law;" legislative issues, including a controversial overhaul of the workers' comp system and a dispute between the state auditor and Legislature; and fellow senators. One limerick was dedicated to correcting the pronunciation of a legislator's name.

But Chambers himself explains in one rhyme, "I Have a Whim:"

Simple words and simpler thoughts meant for the average person

Motivate the rhymes I write. What standard is their measure?

In a world of pain they give, perhaps, a pinch of pleasure.

Dianna Gordon is an assistant editor of State Legislatures.
COPYRIGHT 1994 National Conference of State Legislatures
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes article on Senator Ernie Chambers of Nebraska legislature; part-time legislators combine lawmaking duties with other vocations
Author:Gordon, Dianna
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Jan 1, 1994
Words:2590
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