A Brief History of SLLF

The State Legislative Leaders Foundation was born out of the legislative reform era of the 1970’s. An extraordinary confluence of events had sparked a national movement to reform – today we would say “upgrade” – America’s state legislatures. Numerous studies were published in the early 70’s documenting the steady erosion in the overall effectiveness of state legislatures to carry out their primary lawmaking responsibilities. One study in particular was published in book form, The Sometimes Governments. With its ranking of the 50 state legislatures, from best to worst, it created such a stir that a variety of public interest groups, philanthropic foundations, and very good state legislative leaders took it upon themselves to do something about it.

In 1972, the Ford Foundation awarded a major grant to the newly formed State Legislative Leaders Foundation. The rationale behind the grant was that if any legislative reform was going to take place, it would have to emanate from the top, from the chief officers in the state legislatures – the Speakers of the House, Senate Presidents, Minority and Majority Leaders. What better way to reach these leaders than through an organization comprised of these leaders?

The Ford-funded reform program came to be known as the Program for Legislative Improvement. It was a seven-state pilot project aimed at demonstrating how certain structural and procedural reforms could make the legislature a more co-equal and effective branch of government.

For 4 years, SLLF worked closely with state legislative leaders in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Colorado, Louisiana, Ohio and Minnesota, developing and helping to implement a wide ranging series of reforms that covered such things as session length, professional, nonpartisan and partisan staff, salaries, rules of procedure, and the like.

When the grant finally ended, SLLF chose to continue its work with state legislatures by seeking out other sources of funding. After several more years of work in the arena of legislative reform, finally by 1980 the impetus for further change had run its course and the legislative reform movement effectively ended.

Instead of closing its doors, SLLF chose to redefine its mission so that it might continue to provide valuable service to state legislatures and particularly to state legislative leaders. One thing we had learned over the previous decade was that the men and women chosen to lead their respective legislative chambers often came to office with precious few assets besides their own innate political skills and dedication to the institution.

SLLF sought to meet this very real need by positioning itself as a nonpartisan, educational resource for state legislative leaders; an organization that would work to help legislative leaders navigate the complex world of policymaking and management. We accordingly developed educational programs that took direct aim at what we felt were the most vital issues facing all legislative leaders.

Our first educational program, held in 1983 at Boston University’s Graduate School of Management was groundbreaking in many ways. It was the first time legislative leaders had been invited to take part in a university-based program where the subject matter would be all about them and their work in leadership. It was the first program to feature a case study written by SLLF and focusing on the actual experiences of a newly elected Speaker of the House. And it was the first leadership program where representatives of the private sector (funders of the program) were invited to sit in the classroom, shoulder to shoulder with these 28 legislative leaders, and offer their thoughts and ideas on what it takes to be an effective manager and leader.

The Leaders Advanced Management Program at Boston University was a resounding success and quickly led to the establishment of a complementary second annual program series with the University of California system. Throughout the remainder of the 80’s and well into the 90’s SLLF further established its credentials as a serious organization where leaders came to learn.

As the Foundation continued to mature it took on new initiatives, expanding its portfolio of offerings for state legislative leaders. An international program was added that soon blossomed into an annual Transatlantic Leadership Forum, then Asia was added to the mix, followed by South America and Africa. SLLF was invited to help re-establish a program at the University of Virginia focusing on future leaders. We gladly took on the task and today the Emerging Leaders Program at the University of Virginia is the flagship legislative leadership training program in the nation.

In 1994, SLLF was invited to compete with several other organizations for the right to manage the newly formed National Speakers Conference. It was a major turning point for SLLF as it gave us the opportunity to work closely with this important cohort of presiding officers. The NSC has grown over the intervening years to now be the single largest program for presiding officers in the nation and it has, in turn, given birth to an additional educational program for newly elected Speakers of the House.

Today’s SLLF is the product of all these years of experience. Though much has changed in terms of the scope of our activities, we remain true to our primary mission, “To educate, inspire and inform our nation’s state legislative leaders without regard for party, politics, or ideology.”

We look to the new challenges of the 21st Century with a renewed sense of purpose and optimism that we can continue to provide valuable assistance to every new generation of legislative leaders. For us the challenge will always be to fully understand the “lay of the land.” What kinds of information and ideas will benefit the leaders of today? What is the most effective means of communicating with these very busy people? How can we help break down the partisanship, which if left unchecked can once again diminish the power and relevance of state legislatures?

We stand ready to meet these challenges!