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Across the Midwest, legislators rely on the work of nonpartisan staff, but the structure and oversight of these agencies vary

by Ilene Grossman ~ November 2014 ~ Stateline Midwest »
More than 100 years ago, the state of Wisconsin started what has since become an indispensable part of the daily work of state legislatures — the nonpartisan legislative service agency.
From bill drafting to a host of research services, agency staff help make the legislative process work in capitols across the country, as political scientist Gary Moncrief noted this summer in a presentation to the Midwest’s state legislators.
Since the 1970s, he said, state legislatures have been professionalized and their role in public policy enhanced thanks to a series of reforms, among them a rise in legislative staff. For example, between 1979 and 2009, the median number of legislative staff per member of the legislature has risen from 2.7 to 3.9. (That also includes partisan staff and staff for individual legislators.)
“These reforms were largely effective in making legislatures co-equal branches of government,” Moncrief told the Midwestern Legislative Conference.
But while all states rely heavily on nonpartisan staff, the structure and duties of these agencies can vary.
In Indiana, Iowa and North Dakota, a full menu of services is offered by a single, centralized office. In contrast, the other eight Midwestern states employ multiple nonpartisan agencies; Illinois, for example, has 10 separate and specialized offices serving the legislature — from an Office of the Architect and a Legislative Service Bureau for bill drafting, to a Forecasting and Accountability Commission and a Legislative Research Unit.
Regardless of the structure, though, these agencies are typically given a host of responsibilities: staffing committees, maintaining legislative websites, providing fiscal analysis on bills and advice on legislative procedure, conducting program audits and performance evaluations, maintaining legislative websites, and monitoring how state agencies implement bills passed by the legislature.
Given all of these responsibilities, how are these agencies overseen by the legislature?
In the Midwest, oversight responsibilities are generally handled by a joint committee of legislators, often top legislative leadership, whose duties include hiring agency directors. Legislative service agency staff may then be required to report to the oversight body, or to its chair. In some states, the oversight committee requires the service agency to issue an annual written report; in others, the process is more informal.
Nearly all of these nonpartisan service agencies provide services to both legislative chambers, but there are exceptions. The Minnesota House and Senate, for example, have their own nonpartisan support agencies that report to legislators in their respective chambers. In Michigan, the House and Senate have separate fiscal agencies.
In states that have multiple legislative service agencies, legislatures have not established a formal mechanism for communication among agencies. However, most directors and staff keep each other informed when working together to staff committees or draft bills, and in some states, the directors meet on a regular basis.

 

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