For State Lawmakers, Population Growth Has Its Downsides
By David Harrison, Staff Writer
We tend to think that being a state legislator is a similar job from state to state. In truth, it varies considerably. As the map below reveals, the 80 members of the California Assembly represent, on average, 460,000 people — a huge constituent base that is in a league with members of Congress. By contrast, the 150 members of the Vermont House of Representatives average just 4,100 people in their districts.
The disparities only grew wider over the past decade, according to figures released recently by the U.S. Census Bureau . Explosive population growth in many Western and Southern states means that some state lawmakers find themselves representing thousands more constituents than they used to. In the current state budget environment, the increased workload usually comes without any new staff to help handle it.
In Nevada, for example, lawmakers serve part-time with no district office or staff. Now, the average lawmaker represents 35 percent more constituents than a decade ago. That's the biggest increase in the country.
"Some people will call my house and I'm at my day job and they'll leave nasty messages: 'How come you don't have the staff answering phones? What are we paying you for?' And I'm like: You're not paying anybody," says Mark Manendo, who served eight terms in the state House before being elected to the state Senate last year. "When I was first elected, you had maybe 15 or 20 people that would really question that. But now, it's 50, 60, 70 people calling."
The situation for New Hampshire state Representative Candace Bouchard couldn't be more different. New Hampshire has only 1.3 million people but its state House has 400 members — the most of any legislature in the U.S. Bouchard, who is from Concord, used to represent slightly more than 3,000 people. During the last round of redistricting, Bouchard and her colleagues from neighboring areas pooled their districts so that a group of five representatives now serves slightly more than 12,000 constituents.
Still, the constituent service part of Bouchard's job looks a lot like that of a city councilwoman. "I really know the issues of not just the city of Concord but the issues for my wards, my part of the city," says Bouchard. Constituents, she says, "are basically your neighbors."
When possible, smaller districts are the way to go, according to Alan Rosenthal, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University. "Small is beautiful," says Rosenthal. "It allows for people to have better access, to know their legislators and it brings politics closer to people whether they're interested or not."
Maintaining the personal touch in growing states would require adding more legislative seats to House and Senate chambers. But the trend seems to be going in the other direction. Since 2000, three states have cut the size of their legislatures, most notably Rhode Island, which got rid of 25 of its 100 House seats and 13 of its 50 Senate seats. Since 1912, 13 legislatures have shrunk, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
As states gear up for the next round of redistricting, some legislatures could find themselves under pressure to shrink further. Alaska voters last year turned down a ballot measure intended to boost the number of seats in the legislature by 10 percent. Several bills have been introduced in Minnesota this year to cut the number of lawmakers.
"I get the sense we are getting into some sort of breaking point," says Tim Storey, a senior fellow at NCSL. "They're going to have to get a hard look at the quality of representation."
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