State legislatures have risen in stature and power, but challenges remain — from term limits to the increased size of legislative districts

Earlier this year, Roll Call — the news source dedicated to covering Capitol Hill — ran a short headline that summed up much of U.S. policymaking today.
“It’s the states, stupid,” the magazine declared.
Gridlock continues to reign in the nation’s capital, with power divided among two political parties that have become more ideologically distinct and among members of U.S. Congress who have become more ideologically distant from one another.
That contrasts with trends at the state level, where a single party now controls the governor’s office and both legislative chambers in close to 80 percent of state capitols. That is the highest rate of unified government in more than 50 years.
In the Midwest, powers are now only shared in one of the region’s states, Iowa.
“States are where the action is at this point,” Boise State University professor Gary Moncrief, a leading scholar on state governments and legislatures, said during a plenary session held in July at the Midwestern Legislative Conference Annual Meeting.
He used the Roll Call headline and various other national news sources to underscore the point. But he also pulled out book excerpts to tell the story of a very different era, when state governments were called everything from “tawdry” and “incompetent” to “inefficient and corrupt.”

“If you go back 30 or 40 years, the headline would have been, ‘It’s the stupid states,’” Moncrief said.
The changes over the past few decades didn’t happen by accident, he added. Rather, they resulted from deliberate actions to improve the responsiveness and capacity of state legislatures. The first step was redistricting reform in the 1960s. Prior to the reforms, there were dramatic variances in the population size of different legislative districts. In most Midwestern states, for example, about one-third of the population could elect a legislative majority due to an unequal weighting toward rural areas.
Next, Moncrief said, came a modernization of legislatures.

Most started meeting annually rather than biennially; staffing levels greatly increased (in Illinois, for example, the legislature only had 24 people on staff in 1965, compared to close to 1,000 today); facilities were upgraded; and legislator salaries were increased.
“These reforms were largely effective in making legislatures co-equal branches of government,” Moncrief said.
But new pressures and constraints are again challenging state legislatures and the people who serve in them. For starters, members are simply representing and providing constituency services to more people.
“We’re not making new legislative seats, but the population keeps growing,” Moncrief said.
Term limits, meanwhile, have been become an institutional fact of life in states such as Michigan, Nebraska, South Dakota and Ohio. Legislative term limits have also been proposed in Illinois this year, and in Michigan, some groups are pushing for a ballot initiative that would make its legislature part-time.
In some states, too, the recall of elected officials has become more common, and the ballot initiative is more frequently used to enact policy changes. Pay, meanwhile, hasn’t kept up with inflation; the median salary for legislators fell by 10 percent between 1979 and 2009.
During his presentation, Moncrief urged lawmakers to protect their state legislative institutions — both while serving in capitols and while running for office — and to consider the importance of these institutions as checks against the power of the executive and outside interest groups.
They will also need the institutional capacity to carry a heavier policy load if gridlock continues in Washington, D.C.
“States are going to take on a lot more responsibility for governing on their own,” Moncrief said.
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