Capital Closeup: New-member orientations for legislators serve as building blocks for success

For most new state legislators, only a few weeks separate their November election victories and their first day in office. There is a lot to learn in that short time frame — everything from the legislative process and constituent services, to information about the staffing and resources available to them.
Orienting these new members, then, is crucial to helping make the legislative branch run smoothly, especially in states and in election years with high rates of turnover due to term limits and other factors. Offered in every Midwestern state legislature, new-member orientations are run by nonpartisan staff, often with oversight from legislative leaders or a joint or bipartisan legislative committee.

In the Midwest, it is most common for a single orientation to be held for newly elected members of the House and Senate and to be overseen by a nonpartisan legislative service agency. But there are exceptions. In Kansas, only a portion of the training is done jointly, and in Michigan and Minnesota, much of the programming is developed separately for the House and the Senate. In Kansas and Michigan, the House clerks and Senate secretaries oversee orientations. These duties in Minnesota are handled by the Senate secretary and, for the House orientation, by a bipartisan legislative committee.

New legislators are not required to attend these orientations, but nearly all of them do.
As a result, one of their first legislative experiences is getting to know colleagues from other parts of the state and from the other political party — through both the formal orientation sessions and social activities offered around them. In Minnesota, for example, the orientation for House members includes a three-day retreat.
This early chance at relationship-building can create lasting bonds in the legislature. (It is one reason states have been hesitant to move away from in-person orientation sessions.) The length of these orientations varies from state to state, one day in South Dakota, for example, and five days in Nebraska. Typical programming includes:
  • sessions on bill drafting and amendments, 
  • a review of ethics and gift laws, 
  • an introduction to the appropriations process, and 
  • an overview of administrative procedures, which may include details on salaries, reimbursement and per diem.
In some states, representatives from the governor’s office and state Supreme Court may give short presentations as well. Once sessions begin, much of the formal training by nonpartisan legislative staff ends. But learning opportunities remain for first-year legislators; examples include:
  • continued training in Nebraska on the legislative process and rules;
  • “lunch and learn sessions” offered in Iowa by the fiscal division of the Legislative Services Agency (open to all interested legislators);
  • programming in Indiana on ethics and harassment avoidance;
  • one-hour follow-up meetings for new members of the Minnesota Senate (held about a month after session begins); and
  • a question-and-answer session offered by the Wisconsin Legislative Council once legislators are part way through their first year in office.



Capital Closeup is a regular series of articles produced by CSG Midwest that highlights institutional issues in state governments.




Stateline Midwest: November 20153.16 MB