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Our beleaguered institution.

Reeling from voter anger and public distrust, can the legislative institution ever regain respect?

In this era of political discontent, reality differs substantially from perception. State legislatures are stronger and more effective than at any time in history. Yet, according to public opinion polls, they are widely viewed as unresponsive and incapable. Changing that perception is one of the critical legislative challenges of the 1990s.

On the credit side of the legislative ledger are progressive and creative social policy and institutional accomplishments that rival the very best of federal legislation.

* Oregon convinced the federal government to give it a free hand to overhaul its health care system to cover 450,000 uninsured poor people; Florida enacted a managed competition approach, and at least seven other states have passed significant health care reform.

* Michigan is attempting to start from ground zero to reinvent and refinance K-12 education, Kentucky revamped its entire education system, and Oregon pioneered programs to better prepare kids for the workforce.

* In a special session that was the first of its kind in the nation, Colorado passed a tough new ban on kids possessing guns, and created a new penal system for hard-core juvenile offenders. Utah and Florida rewrote their laws covering kids and guns and dozens of other states are considering doing the same.

* Florida and Michigan leaders cast aside bitter partisan differences and worked out historic and surprisingly successful shared-leadership arrangements when the Florida Senate and the Michigan House became tied after the 1992 elections. * Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency modeled the 1993 Clean Air Act Amendments on California's innovative air quality program that allows emissions trading in polluted areas and encourages the use of electric cars.

But despite these accomplishments, legislatures in the last few years have confronted a series of legal and ethical problems that cast a pall of corruption and distrust over the institution.

* The former Kentucky speaker and two other legislators were convicted in 1992 of extortion and racketeering in an FBI examination of gambling corruption.

* A New Mexico legislator was convicted of corruption in 1992.

* Seven Arizona legislators were indicted on charges of bribery, money laundering, conspiring to extort votes and other illegal acts in an FBI sting in 1991. Three went to prison, two did jail time and two got probation.

* In the worst Michigan scandal in 50 years, the director of the House Fiscal Agency was indicted this year in connection with allegedly siphoning off nearly $2 million of tax money for himself, his staff and his friends.

* In South Carolina, five lawmakers pleaded guilty or were convicted on bribery charges in connection with a phony gambling and dog racing bill, and 14 others were indicted.

Legislatures increasingly deal with complex problems that once were administered or financed by the federal government. With a huge demand for services and bitter taxpayer resistance to more state spending during this most recent recession, lawmakers have taken it on the chin from the public and the press. "The irony," says Alan Rosenthal of Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, "is that legislatures are doing a better job of handling bigger issues than ever, but getting less and less credit for it."

There is also "an incredible increase in lobbying and pressures at the state level," according to Rosenthal. Bribes from lobbyists have been at the root of ethics scandals in legislatures from California to South Carolina. And interest groups, by promising campaign help to individual legislators, can hobble the consensus building efforts of leaders. The public sees corruption and stagnation.

The Olden Days

It wasn't always like this. In the 1960s, under the powerful late Speaker Jesse Unruh, California set a new standard of professionalism. Legislatures up to that point were understaffed, paid a pittance and met only a few months every couple of years. They were, for the most part, the weakest branch of government. But Unruh ushered in a new, energized era. The California Legislature expanded its staff, increased its pay, lengthened its session, enlarged its research and budget analysis capacity, and became the model for many states. New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and New Jersey followed suit as highly professional, well-paid, full-time legislatures. Many legislatures chose to remain part-time, citizen bodies, but they, too, professionalized their staff and strengthened their research and analysis abilities.

The 1970s, according to Rosenthal, after all of this was put in place, was a "very creative period" for state legislatures. In the 1990s, they're under siege.

Sixteen states have limited legislators' terms of office. Voters in 24 states increasingly bypass the legislature and settle public policy issues themselves through the initiative process. Public trust in government in the 1990s is at an all-time low, and citizens hold state legislatures, specifically, in lower esteem than they did 20 years ago.

"The more professional, the better-paid, the better-staffed and the closer to full-time a legislature is, the more it's suspect," says Jerome Lammers, former South Dakota House Majority Leader. "Look at California."

It's true. California voters are particularly hard on their Legislature. They passed one of the nation's strictest term limit initiatives, slashed the state budget by 40 percent and routinely decide dozens of issues through the ballot box. The governor even sponsored an initiative that would have given him unilateral authority to cut the state's budget in fiscal emergencies or whenever he reached an impasse with the Democratic-controlled Legislature. It failed. Michigan voters enacted legislative term limits, and are now discussing an initiative that would make the Legislature unicameral and part-time. Observers believe if it gets on the ballot, it will pass.

But not all assaults on the legislature come from without. In Colorado, then-Senator Terry Considine, an insider, led the successful charge for term limits through an initiative after his bill failed in the General Assembly.

"Time was," says former Colorado Senate President Ted Strickland, "when part of our responsibility was to protect the institution of the legislature and maintain its integrity. That seems to have been forgotten."

Political scientist Malcolm Jewell thinks term limits are the most serious threat facing legislatures right now.

"Term limitations make legislators less effective, less experienced and more susceptible to lobbyists," Jewell says. "There's an erosion of legislative effectiveness in states where term limitations have passed.

"You need to repeal the term limitation initiatives."

The press, whose historic role toward those in government is adversary, often finds confrontation, scandal and acrimony more newsworthy than compromise, consensus and the tedium of lawmaking.

"A good story for a reporter is often a very bad story for the legislator involved or for the legislature as a whole," says former legislator and journalist Martin Linsky.

Assailed by the public, the press and in some instances its own members, the legislature is a beleaguered institution.

"It's all too easy, in stressful times, for everyone to forget how valuable--and how fragile--these representative institutions are," says nationally syndicated columnist David Broder.

So how do legislators go about making everyone remember?

Leadership, ethics and campaign finance reform are Malcolm Jewell's prescription for rebuilding respect for the legislature in today's hostile environment. "Skilled, effective leadership is at the top of the list" to strengthen state legislatures, Jewell believes, followed closely by "higher standards of ethics--more sensitivity to ethical standards."

Jewell said the FBI sting in Kentucky "revealed some serious illegalities and a lack of sensitivity to the kinds of conditions that cause trouble. If relationships between legislators and lobbyists get careless enough, it's easy to slip into some kind of bribery or another.

"That hurts public support."

But Kentucky rose to the occasion. It created a bipartisan citizen ethics commission, prohibited legislators and leaders from forming PACs and required all legislative candidates to limit PAC contributions to 35 percent of the total funds raised or $5,000, whichever is greater, making the state's campaign financing law one of the strictest in the nation.

Indiana Senate President Pro Tem Robert Garton says legislatures today are stronger because of improved procedures and the generally high caliber of lawmakers now serving. But they are also more maligned because of the complexity of issues they handle.

"The issues have become more and more intractable," agrees Kentucky Senator Walter Baker.

Senator Jim Lack of New York thinks so too. He believes legislatures are under fire because they are the "conduits and pass-throughs for other people's money--money we don't control, such as Medicaid and social services.

"States need more control over their financial destiny. They need to convince Congress that those 50 state legislatures are better able to monitor and handle the distribution of tax funds |than Congress is~."

Lack, like Professor Jewell, believes term limits will corrode the reputation of legislatures even more.

"A citizen lawmaker who reforms the legislature every session might be fine in movies--but it won't work in real life. There is the complexity of budgets, the relationships of the legislature with the federal and local governments.

"If they |term limit proponents~ want to come out and say the Founding Fathers were wrong on representative democracy, then they need to come out with a parliamentary government like the European system.

"Of course that's heresy. But so are term limits when you come down to it."

In 1991, the National Conference of State Legislatures, concerned about the steep decline in public regard for the legislature, created the Legislative Institution Task Force to recommend solutions.

Its 1993 report, Strengthening State Legislatures, is a prescription for what ails the legislature most seriously--public perception, legislative organization and management, and leadership.

Educating the Public

Some states themselves have decided to educate the public about the legislature to dispel negative perceptions, and have done it quite successfully. In Georgia, for example, the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia has developed a model curriculum and strategies for teaching courses about legislatures. Junior high and high school teachers in Minnesota receive a complete textbook written by legislators and staff for teaching about the legislative process. In Pennsylvania, the chief clerk of the House created a board game on the legislative process and distributes it free to public schools. Most citizens learn about their legislature from the newspapers and television. The relationship between the legislature and the media is supposed to be adversarial, but that's no reason to look on the press as the enemy, the report suggests.

"Legislators and legislatures have it within their power to do something to restore their tarnished images," says Martin Linsky, "but they will have to begin by understanding the press, its drives and its constraints."

Linsky says tension between reporters and lawmakers is predictable, and legislators should accept it as a fact of life. But developing a professional relationship with the media is essential to creating a "more respected environment for legislators to do the people's business."

How to go about it? The NCSL report recommends briefing the media on both the legislative process and the important pending issues, conducting bipartisan meetings with editorial boards and news managers on activities and current issues, and discussing the legislature's goals and performance with the media at the end of each session.

Organization and Management

"Democracy is about means, not ends. It is about process, not product," says former Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan.

How legislatures conduct their business--passing the budget on time, debating issues fairly and openly, involving citizens--influences whether the public views them as legitimate bodies for resolving problems.

Most states are still reluctant to take on the mantle of a full-time legislature, and some, like Kentucky, revisit their decision.

The debate over a citizen versus full-time legislature "became a major league problem when we talked ethics," according to Speaker Joe Clark. "We decided we were a citizen legislature here, everybody's part-time."

But part-time needn't be unprofessional, the report states. Delaware and West Virginia recently examined their staffing needs to ensure they had a source of independent information to serve their citizen legislators. West Virginia added staff and reorganized functions so lawmakers could get more help reviewing policy proposals and formulating alternatives.

The Florida House of Representatives conducted an extensive study of its operations that resulted, among other changes, in new deadlines for considering legislation, subjecting conference committees to open meeting rules, and reorganizing the committee system.


Political scientists have long held that leaders shape the public image of the legislature and its success; they symbolize the institution in which they serve. "Legislative leadership has a role that no one else in the legislature can perform," says Alan Rosenthal. "It is up to leadership to take a statewide perspective, deal with the other chamber and with the governor, represent the legislature to the press, serve and protect its members and help maintain the legislature as an institution."

A big responsibility. But by educating caucus members about their institutional responsibility, promoting a sense of common values among members and staff, developing agendas that lay out the policy priorities of their caucus, and attending to procedural and organizational responsibilities, leaders can preserve, promote and enhance the legislative institution. "Legislatures really did transform themselves," says Rosenthal. "They are an institutional success story in terms of where they were 20 years ago and where they are now."

If the public doesn't believe that, nobody else but legislators can convince them.

"The creation of representative legislatures, as a balance to the traditional strong individual leader, has been America's greatest contribution to free, democratic government," says U.S. Senator Paul Sarbanes, a former Maryland state lawmaker. "The freedom and liberties of our people depend on them.

"Other nations now struggle to create representative legislatures, which America has had for 200 years. Too often we foolishly take them for granted and assume that representative government is ours by birthright. But, in truth, we must continually work to strengthen our legislatures and, thus, to preserve our freedom and liberty."

A worthy goal.

To Strengthen the Institution Leaders Can:

1. Educate each member about his or her responsibility to the legislative institution.

2. Conduct informal briefings and orientations for the media to help them understand the role and responsibility of the legislature and to help build support for the legislative process.

3. Enhance public input in legislative decisions. Strengthen support for legislative decisions by giving the public a greater voice in the process through hearings, town hall meetings or other devices.

4. Increase the efficiency of the legislative process and improve the quality of legislation that is passed. The rush at the end of the session does not enhance the legislature's public image nor does it result in high quality legislation. 5. Promote a sense of common values among the members and staff that embody the highest ideals of the legislative institution. Enforce compliance with these values even if it means supporting institutional needs at the expense of an individual member.

6. Create the circumstances in which all members, the media and the public have an interest in the legislative institution.

7. Ensure that leaders hold themselves and their legislature to standards which are at least as stringent as those applied to the rest of state government. Advice from Strengthening State Legislatures

To Raise Ethical Standards:

* Provide training to lawmakers, staff and lobbyists on the requirements of their state's ethics laws. This training should emphasize the highest ethical standards, not just meeting the minimum requirements of the ethics statute. It should also emphasize the importance of avoiding even the appearance of impropriety.

* Require that campaign contributions, gifts and money spent on lobbying be fully disclosed by legislators, staff and lobbyists.

* Educate members and staff about the acceptable standards of conduct in their state. Legislative leaders should take strong and decisive action to enforce these standards.

* Publish these standards of conduct and explain them to all members to avoid any confusion on the part of lawmakers or the public over what constitutes acceptable behavior.

To Improve Relations with the Media:

* Provide orientation programs for news personnel on both the legislative process and public policy issues pending before the legislature.

* Conduct bipartisan conferences with editorial boards and news managers regarding the legislature's activities and current issues. These meetings should focus media attention on the policy process and issues, not just on partisan differences and conflict.

* Set specific goals for the legislative session, articulate these goals to the media and discuss the legislature's performance with respect to these goals at the end of the session.

* Teach all legislators about the operations of the news media so they understand how best to work with it.

* Acknowledge when the media do a good job and pursue corrections of distortions in facts or other errors in stories.

To Improve Public Education and Understanding:

* Develop model curricula on state government and the legislative process to be used by schools.

* Meet with civics and government teachers to help them better understand the legislative process and issues before the legislature.

* Make it easier for the public to get information about legislative activities such as committee and session schedules, bill status, bill summaries and voting records.

* Take the legislature to the people by holding interim committee meetings in locations outside of the capital city.

* Use technology such as teleconferencing, interactive video and computer bulletin boards to facilitate communication with citizens in all regions of the state.

* Implement educational programs ranging from mock legislative sessions such as Boys' and Girls' State to internships for students.

* Distribute an annual report to the citizens that succinctly describes the actions taken by the legislature. This report could include a description of legislative action on major issues during the last session, budget data such as the amount and sources of tax revenue and the amount of state expenditures by function, measures of state government's performance during the past year, and a survey of citizen attitudes on current issues.

A New Report to Strengthen Legislatures

State legislatures in the 1990s get less respect than ever. The public believes they can't solve problems, they're unduly influenced by special interests, and that lawmakers as a whole are incompetent or dishonest.

Concerned by this negative public perception, the National Conference of State Legislatures in 1991 created the Legislative Institution Task Force to examine these problems and suggest solutions. Chaired by Maryland Delegate Nancy Kopp, the group consisted of 29 leaders, legislators and legislative staffers who met for two years. Their primary concern was building support for the legislative institution and the legislative process as the legitimate method for making public policy decisions.

This month, the task force published its recommendations in the report, Strengthening State Legislatures. It is available free to all legislators. Please call the NCSL Marketing Department at (303)830-2200 to receive your copy. Karen Hansen is 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 related articles; negative public perception of state legislatures
Author:Hansen, Karen
Publication:State Legislatures
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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