Newcomers Will Hold Sway in Many State Legislatures

The 2010 state elections didn't just bring in a flood of Republican lawmakers — they brought in hordes of first-term members who have never held a comparable post before.
by , | December 6, 2010

By John Gramlich, Stateline Staff Writer

If you see someone wandering around lost in the Michigan Capitol when the state House and Senate convene next month, there’s a good chance it will be a legislator. The 110-member House of Representatives will include 60 newcomers — all of whom will arrive in Lansing without any state legislative experience whatsoever.

The huge turnover in the Michigan House — the result not only of an unhappy electorate, but also of strict term limits that forced out 34 incumbents — has many political observers wondering what will happen when so many novices suddenly find themselves with so much power over the direction of state policy.

“It’s almost impossible to forecast,” says Craig Ruff, a Lansing political consultant who estimates more than 90 percent of all members of the Michigan House will have no more than two years on the job. At the very least, Ruff says, it could make for some interesting political theater, even within the newly elected Republican majority, as first-term members may not wish to be shepherded by their own legislative leaders.

“It’s much harder to enforce discipline when people aren’t accustomed to being disciplined,” Ruff says, noting that some lawmakers may be inclined to ask a simple question of their leaders: “I’ve got one vote. You’ve got one vote. What makes you so supreme?”

Similar scenarios may emerge in other capitols. The 2010 election cycle is frequently noted for its historic turnover in governor’s mansions, with 28 new chief executives about to take office in the coming weeks. But because of term limits, retirements and the ouster of hundreds of incumbents nationwide this year, there will also be a huge number of state legislators coming to the job for the first time. In many states, including Maryland, Nevada and Maine, incoming freshmen have already taken crash courses on everything ranging from the basics of legislative procedure to the right way to speak with reporters.

Nationwide, the turnover in state legislatures will be about 25 percent, a number that Tim Storey, an elections analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, describes as an “extraordinarily high” number in a non-redistricting year.

In several states, as in Michigan, first-time legislators will comprise roughly half of all members in one or both chambers, bringing a new and unpredictable dynamic to statehouses where clout and experience often rule. In Arkansas, for example, where term limits ensured plenty of turnover even before ballots were cast, 44 of 100 members of the state House will be new next year, with no state-level legislative experience under their belts.

In next-door Missouri, 75 of 163 House members will be state legislative novices. So large is the class of “true freshman” GOP representatives in the Missouri House that it outnumbers the chamber’s entire Democratic caucus, as well as the number of returning Republicans.

In New Hampshire, which does not have term limits, the 400-member House of Representatives — the largest state legislative chamber in the nation — will have 128 fresh faces next year, all of them new to the business of state lawmaking.

But while the number of first-time legislators is significant in many states, no state will see more turnover than Michigan. Besides the turnover in the House, a record 29 of the state Senate’s 38 members also will be new (though the vast majority previously served in the lower chamber). No state has seen more turnover in a single legislative chamber in at least 50 years, according to NCSL.

Who benefits?

Beyond the prospect of legislative leaders struggling to corral their freshman members — particularly in a year in which the rebellious Tea Party became a national sensation — many experts believe that lobbyists may gain from the inexperience in state legislatures next year.

In Nevada, for example, where nearly half of the Assembly will be first-time state lawmakers, “new legislators will rely on their leadership, but they’ll also rely on lobbyists to help them understand the various nuances of legislating,” says Bob Crowell, who is mayor of Carson City and a veteran lobbyist representing a broad variety of interests at the Legislature. “Whether that’s a criticism, I’m not sure.”

Crowell notes that most lobbyists have been around the statehouse longer than newly elected legislators, and can serve as valuable conduits of information — not only about legislation they are pushing but about what other members of the Legislature are thinking, too. “Lobbyists talk to more legislators than legislators talk to,” he says. “In that respect, there’s more information that can come from a lobbyist than a legislator.”

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