ANNAPOLIS- A more knowledgeable and professional legislator is becoming the norm in Annapolis as increasingly complex issues fill legislators’ days, and more frequently, their nights.
The change has had a direct impact on the atmosphere in and around the State House.
“There has definitely been an increasing professionalization of legislators and their staff in state legislatures,” said Paul Herrnson, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship.
“One factor is the devolution of responsibility from the federal government,” Herrnson said, but another is the attitude of legislators who now see the job as a major part of who they are and consequently work very hard to keep it.
“It has evolved into a full-time job because of the increased demands and because of how legislators view themselves and their role in the political process,” he said.
Many in the state capital agree.
“The legislators themselves have become more and more sophisticated, and demand a perfect product,” said Barbara Schwarz, assistant to the chairman of the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee.
When Schwarz started working as a senator’s secretary in 1973, she said, “the General Assembly was very unsophisticated, small and informal.”
Like Herrnson, some legislators point to the responsibilities passed from the federal government as a turning point.
“Nationally, legislatures realized the importance of the job and changes in the federal government led to it,” said Sen. Arthur Dorman, D-Prince George’s, an optometrist. “The public elected a more intelligent legislative group which took on more and more power.”
Lawmakers joining the General Assembly in recent years are more single issue-oriented, said Bruce Bereano, a long-time Annapolis lobbyist and former General Assembly staffer.
Having focused legislators with specialized knowledge is helpful in some ways, Bereano said, but it is a hindrance in others.
“They should learn about the institution they are a member of before jumping into issues,” he said. “It would make them more successful.”
Many of the new legislators are “political junkies,” said House Minority Leader Robert Kittleman, R-Howard, with less experience in the “real world.” These “professional” legislators, many with full-time jobs in the private sector, have brought with them the need for professional support staff.
Staffing numbers have ballooned since the 1970s, a possible indicator of increased workload.
In 1971, the annual budget only provided for six General Assembly staff positions. This year, there were 367 appropriated positions for staff working directly with legislators.
That does not include the Legislative Services staff, formed through the 1997 merger of the Departments of Legislative Reference and Fiscal Services. In 1971, those two departments had a combined 88 budgeted positions. This year Legislative Services had 360.
Legislative Services provides staff services to all General Assembly committees, subcommittees, commissions and task forces. It conducts legal and legislative research, provides fiscal analyses, drafts bills, publishes reports and takes care of information systems among other duties.
“We used to have just one lawyer or fiscal analyst for the committee,” said Schwarz. “Now we have two lawyers and some have a lawyer and a fiscal analyst.”
Professionalism in the Legislature and other factors have also brought a change in the capital’s atmosphere — and size.
The word “sponsor,” for example, once had a special meaning around the capital.
“It was common that around 4 or 5 p.m., after the committee meetings were over, somebody would say: ‘Who’s got a sponsor?'” Kittleman said. That was the signal that a lobbyist, or sponsor, would be picking up the tab for an evening of relaxation, and a group would form to go out for a good time.
“I haven’t heard the word sponsor in 10 years,” Kittleman said.
Legislators, staff and others agree that the increased demands of the job have come at the expense of fun in and around State Circle.
“It was a 90-day Mardi Gras for those who wanted it,” said Blair Lee, a political commentator whose father served in the General Assembly, and as secretary of state, lieutenant governor and acting governor.
“There is a greater absence of camaraderie,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, who has also seen the ambiance change in his 30 years. “There isn’t as much time to enjoy your colleagues.”
Partisanship, too, was downplayed then, Miller said, but that’s not the case now.
“There was a lot more drinking, carousing,” said lobbyist Robin Shaivitz. “People in Annapolis thought there was a bubble over the town so they weren’t seen by constituents, and the press kept more secrets.”
“I think everybody had a lot more fun years ago,” said Schwarz, the Senate committee staffer who remembers the days when lobbyists used to come into the committee and tell staff to head to a local restaurant for a good time on them. Bethlehem Steel’s parties are still fresh in her memory.
“It was a more relaxed atmosphere,” said Kathy Smith, assistant to the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. “There was more camaraderie and there was more trust among senators. Now you never know where they’re coming from.”
Despite changes and added demands, legislators and staff still say they love the job, and for those who do not, Miller says: “It’s an enjoyable place to be and if anybody doesn’t like it, they can get out.”