Legislatures Expand Training for New Members


At one time, newly elected state legislators were shown to the chambers with little more than the keys to an office and a quick introduction to staff.

Those days are over in most states. The new-member orientations that many legislatures have held this year are far more involved, encompassing everything from mock committee meetings and floor debates to case studies of historical legislative accomplishments.

"My head is swimming," says Michigan state Representative-elect Deb Shaughnessy, adding that she was a legislative staffer for a decade before running for office and thought she had an adequate grasp of the job in advance. She now realizes there was more to learn.  "I don't think you ever could be fully prepared," she says now.

This year's elections produced a high level of turnover in state legislatures: Roughly one in four state lawmakers in 2011 will be new. In statehouses, training programs have been ramping up over the past few weeks to educate this wave of freshmen about how to do the job they've just campaigned so hard to win. The programs, many of them established over the past decade in response to term limits, also attempt to find creative ways to transfer institutional knowledge from a dwindling number of veteran lawmakers.

The most popular sessions, says Bruce Feustel, of the National Conference of State Legislators, give new members the opportunity to learn from colleagues. Incoming legislators don't always understand what they need to know until they need to know it. So hearing from second-termers about the aspects of the job that proved challenging or surprised them is particularly helpful. 

"They are people who've just been through it and can speak to what they know now that they wish they knew then," Feustel says. "It's a fun session where they can share their foibles and missteps and give new legislators a sense of the humanity of it all."

Back to school

A popular trend in these programs aims to prevent information overload. More legislator training is provided in chunks over longer periods of time, and regular training opportunities are made available throughout the legislative session. 

For example, Wyoming stretches its training out over several weeks, so that legislators have time to digest and process the information. Wisconsin has added a day to its training and built in more opportunity for small group discussions and workshops. Trainers in Wisconsin now spend less time talking at legislators, but supplement the sessions with a 373-page textbook that the freshmen can refer back to once they are further into the details of legislating. "You just can't stand up there and talk to the members about every department of the executive branch," says Terry Anderson, director of the Wisconsin Legislative Council.

Another current trend involves paying more attention to the spouses of legislators and providing programs that specifically cater to them. The Alabama Law Institute, which oversees Alabama's orientation program, made that part of its agenda this year. The lack of staff capacity in the Alabama Legislature means that spouses sometimes end up serving as de-facto aides to their elected wives or husbands, says Robert McCurley, the law institute's director. "They can't just say 'Oh, my spouse is the legislator,'" he says. "Once the spouse jumps in the fishbowl, they are in there with them."

When the Michigan Legislature convenes next month, lawmakers will have a host of fiscal and economic ills to reckon with, including a $1.6 billion budget gap. And because of term limits and election defeats, there will be only 15 House members left with more than two years of experience. Of the 110 members of the House, 60 will be new. 

"I think some of them don't believe how serious the situation really is," says Mitch Bean, director of the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency. "Some of these things are overwhelming, and I sympathize because it's not their fault. The typical person who gets elected is intelligent, works extremely hard and wants to do their best for the people of the state. The thing is, this stuff is complicated and takes a while to grasp." Bean and his staff have been involved in a range of programs for new legislators, and have come to view the training and education of junior members as a central part of their jobs.

Fostering bipartisanship

In Michigan, the House orientation, focused largely on procedures, is supplemented with a more policy-focused one put on by the Michigan State University Institute for Public Policy and Social Research. That program seeks to bring legislators up to speed on the state's key problems and give them some practical guidance about the options they will have in addressing them. This year's agenda included a briefing on state and local revenue streams and tours of research organizations and businesses that represent emerging sectors in Michigan's economy. It also included a bipartisan bowling outing.

Veteran trainers in Michigan and elsewhere in the country indicate that building in time for breaks and social activities pays off as much as the best-designed study session. "Once you're sworn in, you're pulled in all sorts of different directions," says Michigan state Representative Kate Segal, who is about to begin her second term. "You never get that kind of time together again." 

Camaraderie among Segal and her cohorts during 2009 training led directly to the creation of a new Bipartisan Freshman Caucus before the new class even took office. The Caucus met on a regular basis and pooled resources to search for bipartisan solutions to problems that everyone around the table agreed needed solving.

In Michigan, efforts to inspire bipartisanship actually begin before the elections take place. Michigan State has a year-long fellowship program that brings 24 aspiring office-holders to a series of 10 weekend training sessions. The training is geared toward developing leadership skills, and educating participants about how to run a campaign and how the legislature works. Fellows from opposing parties are housed together in hopes of fostering long-term friendships among future political rivals. One in ten members of the Legislature is a graduate of this program.

Steve Tobocman, a state representative from 2003 to 2008, co-directs the Michigan State program. He knows first hand how term limits have created a need to educate new lawmakers in a hurry: By his fifth year on the job, he was the second-in-command of the House. 

"When you see almost half the Legislature turn over," Tobocman says, "the only way to maintain any level of professionalism and substance in the process is to train the people who are going to be at the helm." 


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