By: Thom Little, Ph.D.
For more than seventy years, the descendants of James H. and Virginia Howell Colson have gathered in Norwood, North Carolina on the first Sunday of June for the Colson Family Reunion. As one of those descendants, I have probably attended about half of the reunions, including the 2018 edition. When I moved back to North Carolina in 1999, we would drive west and meet my parents in the middle so that we could ride together the rest of the way and they could spend more time with their granddaughters.
A few years ago, I began to go to the reunion on my own (bringing along which ever combination of my wife and two daughters that I could talk into going) and I still drove the same route. Until this year. I decided to input the address for First United Methodist Church of Norwood, North Carolina into Waze and discovered that for more than five years I had been going way out of my way, wasting more than 40 minutes each way!
For more than a decade, I went the same way and did the same thing that I had always done. I never thought to question it. I never considered that there might be a better way. Moreover, others that trusted me literally “came along for the ride,” wasting their time and energy as well.
Over the last few weeks, the staff of the State Legislative Leaders Foundation and some friends of ours have begun to wonder if state legislators around the country might be doing the same thing. It has been almost fifty years since anyone took a comprehensive look at the institution of the state legislature and how it functions. In 1971, the Citizen’s Conference of State Legislatures published “The Sometime Governments: An Evaluation of the Fifty American Legislatures,” in which they evaluated each chamber on the FAIIR criterion (Functional, Accountable, Informed, Independent and Representative). For two decades, legislatures and those who ran them worked feverishly to implement changes that would help their chambers meet these criterion. And it worked. The state legislatures of the 2010s clearly are better paid, better staffed, more efficient, better organized, more diverse and more reflective of their constituents than their counterparts of a half century ago.
However, today, state legislatures face a new set of problems that suggest it is time we take another look to make sure they are not taking the same route to the family reunion!
The reforms of the 1970s effectively addressed most of the structural problems that limited the effectiveness of those institutions, so that today’s state legislatures have the structural capacity to make informed, independent and representative decisions. And yet, for a variety of reasons they do not appear to be taking full advantage of that capacity. Many of today’s state legislatures, like the US Congress, are defined by gridlock, hyper-partisanship, a skeptical (at best) public, extremely partisan electoral districts, uncontested elections, inefficient processes and members with limited interest in protecting and supporting the legislative institution. In short, today’s legislatures seem to have the capacity to be effective, but lack the will, internal incentives and institutional processes to take advantage of that capacity. While the challenges have changed, the legislatures have not – they are still doing things the same way they have always done them.
In light of this, SLLF is exploring the possibility of coordinating a comprehensive study of the modern state legislature to determine what, if anything, can be done to ensure that it will maintain its rightful and constitutional place as a truly co-equal branch of government. Over the next few months, we will be putting together a steering team of legislators, former legislators, experts, scholars and thoughtful friends to help us determine if this project is feasible, to explore possible funding sources and to map out a way forward. Further, we will be talking to legislative and corporate participants at our educational programs, formally and informally, about the challenges they face in their institutions and possible ways to address those challenges.
So if Steve or Evelene or Marcia or Tony (or anyone else) from SLLF starts to ask what is going on in your chamber, we are not being nosey (or if we are, it is for a good cause!). We are just trying to “pick your brain” so we can help to improve the institution of the state legislature that we all hold so dear. If you are interested in discussing this project further or perhaps being on the Steering Committee, please call or text me at (336) 202-7043 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maybe it is time for a change. The old ways worked well and they got us where we wanted to go. But as the times and challenges have changed, maybe we can find new technologies, processes and motivations to make the institution even better and get us to where we need to be more efficiently and more effectively. Let’s work together to make sure the 21st Century state legislature is the strong, representative and independent body the Founders designed it to be.