First in the Midwest: Idea to provide nonpartisan legislative service first took root in Wisconsin, and then spread across the country

When Wisconsin lawmakers authorized the establishment of a “working library” to be housed in the state Capitol in 1901, the seed was planted for what soon became an invaluable resource for the Legislature and the citizens of Wisconsin.
More than 100 years later, the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau — the nation’s first nonpartisan legislative service agency to provide drafting and research services to legislators — boasts an impressive record of innovation and public service and remains a vital facilitator of the legislative process in Madison.

With a staff of 58, including 22 attorneys, and an annual budget of $6 million, the bureau drafts thousands of bills, amendments and resolutions every year. It also provides a wide array of services to lawmakers and the public, including legal research, the production of numerous publications, the maintenance of the state’s legislative library, the revision of statutes and the publication of the Administrative Register.
Though originally offered informally through the part-time efforts of a handful of attorneys, the bureau’s groundbreaking bill-drafting service quickly became one of its core functions and remains so today. 
According to Rep. Joan Ballweg, lawmakers depend on Legislative Reference Bureau support throughout the legislative process.
“We rely on them to take our ideas and put them into terms that can be passed into law,” she says.
Ballweg adds that the bureau also helps legislators understand the measures that come before them.
“They do a great job of providing concise, plain-language explanations of proposed bills and amendments.”
Idea takes hold in other states, Congress
Ironically, the agency that eventually became so integral to the legislative process in Wisconsin was originally housed in the executive branch after the legislature authorized its creation by the Free Library Commission, a five-member governing board established in 1895 to provide advice and counsel to all free libraries in the state.
As originally conceived, the Legislative Reference Bureau — then called the Legislative Reference Library — was intended to serve primarily as an information resource within the state Capitol (perhaps filling a void created by the departure of the State Historical Society in 1901). In that capacity, it was similar in kind to other reference libraries that predated it, including a legislative library established in New York a decade earlier.
What set the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Library apart from others, however, was its commitment to improving the legislative process by providing research and drafting assistance to lawmakers.
That commitment reflected the vision of the library’s first chief, Charles McCarthy. A former clerk with the Free Library Commission, McCarthy believed the new library had an important role to play, not just as information resource, but in fostering an improved and more efficient lawmaking process.
In developing the library’s mission and services, McCarthy created an agency that quickly became a prototype for similar entities in other states. And in 1912, he testified before the U.S. Congress in support of the precursor to the Congressional Research Service, which was based on the Wisconsin model.
A product of the Progressive era in Wisconsin, the Legislative Reference Library came under fire in 1915, when Gov. Emanuel Philipp threatened to close what some legislators perceived as a progressive “bill factory.”
That effort failed, however, and in the decades that followed, the agency came to be well regarded by lawmakers across the political spectrum as a neutral source of unbiased, professional research and drafting assistance. In 1963, the library was finally removed from the Free Library Commission and placed under the jurisdiction of the Legislature’s new Joint Committee on Legislative Oversight.
Renamed the Legislative Reference Bureau at the same time, it is now one of five Wisconsin legislative service agencies. The others are the Legislative Council, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the Legislative Audit Bureau and the Legislative Technology Services Bureau.
Over the years, the bureau has repeatedly pioneered innovations in legislative service. The first full-service agency to provide lawmakers with library, research and drafting services, the bureau (under the direction of Dr. Rupert Theobald, its longest-serving chief) was also the first to develop and use a computerized bill drafting and statutory retrieval system.
More recently, the bureau began converting its holdings into digital files to facilitate online searches and public access to information. It also was the first service bureau to publish RSS feeds, beginning in 2003; in 2015, it will begin publishing the Wisconsin Administrative Register exclusively in paperless form.
According to current chief Steve Miller, the bureau’s mission continues to reflect an agency commitment to both legislative and public service, and he points out that the bureau works closely with all three branches of state government. In addition to its legislative duties, the bureau drafts the governor’s biennial budget bill and assists the Wisconsin Supreme Court in reviewing its rules.
Stateline Midwest ~ March 20141.71 MB