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Where's The Bathroom? Half Of All State Lawmakers Will Be New On The Job

In the land of legislative freshmen, sophomores can be kings.

That's a dynamic that will play out around much of the country after the fall elections. Come January, about half the nation's roughly 7,400 legislators will be totally new on the job or have only two years' experience, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"The 2010-12 cycle almost certainly will result in the highest rate of turnover in state legislatures over two elections in the last 50 years," two NCSL analysts wrote in a recent blog post.

That's due to a combination of factors. Republicans made massive gains in 2010, winning 20 legislative chambers and racking up the most legislative seats the GOP has controlled since the 1920s. And heavy turnover is expected again this fall, thanks to redistricting.

What this all means will vary by state. In places such as New York and New Jersey, newcomers likely will play their traditional role of keeping quiet along the back benches while 20-year veterans run the show.

But junior members may well hold great sway in the 15 statesthat impose term limits and in those where (mostly) Republicans have arrived more or less at the same time and instantly come to dominate their party caucuses.

States such as Florida, Colorado and California could see legislative turnover rates as high as 25 to 40 percent this fall, in part due to term limits. "A first-termer in a state like California might be chairing the Appropriations Committee," says Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego.

People who work in and around legislatures believe that term limits and high turnover can make for lousy lawmaking. Legislatures dominated by newbies have tended to cede a great deal of power to governors. Newcomers don't have the expertise necessary to ride herd over the executive branch on complicated matters such as setting the budget, or to avoid refighting policy battles that had been settled several years earlier.

"A house with massive turnover almost negates seniority," says Kousser, an expert on term limits. "These new people are going to come in with a lot of power but not a lot of knowledge."

Richard Finan, a former president of the Ohio Senate, says his fellow Republicans who took control of the state House and the governorship in 2010 made some rookie mistakes. Most notable, he says, was passage of a sweeping anti-union bill that was repealed by voters last fall.

"I really question whether it would have passed in days past, with a multitude of old-timers still in the General Assembly," Finan says. "I think the old-timers would have said, 'Instead of doing it all in one fell swoop, do it bit by bit, little by little.' "

Republican majorities in states such as Tennessee, Alabama and North Carolina that were the result of big freshman classes elected in 2010 have been nothing if not ambitious. Those states — along with those such as Kansas and Oklahoma that elected GOP governors to work hand-in-glove with Republican legislative majorities — have changed the landscape when it comes to matters like tax policy and social issues such as abortion.

Some political observers will complain that the newcomers have overreached. But the "big, revolutionary cohorts" have also shown the power of large contingents that arrive in the capitol without much regard for seniority or respect for the way things have always been done, says Thom Little, research director for the State Legislative Leaders Foundation.

"Say what you want about the legislation passed in Louisiana or North Carolina or Alabama," Little says, "they got a lot done."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.