A Brief History of SLLF

The State Legislative Leaders Foundation was born of legislative reform efforts in the 1970’s.

An extraordinary set of events sparked a national movement then to reform America’s state legislatures. Studies in the early ’70s showed a steady erosion in the ability of state legislatures to carry out their lawmaking responsibilities. One study in particular created a stir: The Sometimes Governments. Ranking the 50 state legislatures from best to worst, it stimulated public interest groups, philanthropic foundations, and state legislative leaders to take the subject on.

In 1972, the Ford Foundation issued a large grant to the newly formed State Legislative Leaders Foundation. Ford’s thinking was that if any legislative reform was going to happen, it would need to come from the top — from House Speakers, Senate Presidents, Majority Leaders and Minority Leaders. And what better way to reach those leaders than through an organization made up of them?

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 that certain structural reforms and changes to procedure could make state legislatures more effective, and a more co-equal branch of government.

For 4 years, SLLF worked closely with legislative leaders in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Colorado, Louisiana, Ohio and Minnesota, developing and implementing reforms affecting session length, staffs, salaries, rules of procedure, and the like.

When the Ford grant finally ended, SLLF continued its work with state legislatures by finding other sources of funding. But by 1980 the impetus for further change seemed to have run its course. The legislative reform movement effectively ended.

Instead of closing its doors, SLLF redefined its mission. SLLF wanted to keep serving state legislatures, and particularly the leaders of those legislatures. Over the previous decade it had learned that the men and women who rose to leadership often came to office with few assets other than innate political skills and dedication to the institution.

SLLF saw a need: state legislative leaders needed a source of nonpartisan issue information, and a place to discuss skills specific to their jobs. So, we created educational programs covering the most pressing issues of the day. In 1983 we held our first such program, held at Boston University’s Graduate School of Management and called the Leaders Advanced Management Program. It was groundbreaking: the first time that legislative leaders had been invited to take part in a university-based program in which the subject matter was them, and their work in leadership. It was also the first such program to feature a case study, written by SLLF and focusing on the real 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. It quickly led to a second annual program series, conducted in the University of California system. Through the remainder of the 1980s and well into the 1990s, SLLF deepened its credentials as an organization creating chances for leaders to learn.

As the Foundation matured it took on new initiatives. An international program appeared, that soon blossomed into an annual Transatlantic Leadership Forum. Participants from Asia were added, followed by South America, and then Africa. SLLF was asked to help re-establish a program at the University of Virginia, focusing on future leaders. We gladly took on that task. Today the Emerging Leaders Program at the University of Virginia is the flagship legislative leadership training program in the country.

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

Today’s SLLF is the product of all these years of experience. Though much has changed in 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 challenges of the 21st Century with a renewed sense of purpose, and an optimism that we can provide valuable assistance to new generations 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 to break down the hyper-partisanship, which if left unchecked can once again diminish the power and relevance of state legislatures?

We are ready to meet these challenges.