The lunchbucket legislative staff: Idaho relies on a skeleton crew

Only five states have a lower ratio of staff-to-legislator than the Gem State, says Boise State political scientist Gary Moncrief.

"The Idaho taxpayer gets great value out of the Idaho legislative staff," Moncrief told freshmen lawmakers Monday during their opening day of orientation. "It's J.C. Penny, not Nordstrom."

Idaho's 105-member Legislature has 81 full-time staff, or 0.8 staff per legislator.

The top three states? California with a staff-to-lawmaker ratio of 17-1, New York at 12-1, and Texas at 11-1.

The national average is 3.8-1.

Moncrief also noted another distinction: Only three states have two-year terms for both chambers and have legislative districts with the same boundaries for House seats and Senate seats. Also, most states have two-year House terms and four-year Senate terms.

In Idaho, House and Senate districts are identical, with House members running for "A" and "B" seats. Most states have smaller House districts.

Idaho lawmakers represent about 45,000 people, near the national median of 41,000. The smallest districts are in the New Hampshire House, with just 3,000 people per district. The largest districts are California's Senate districts, with 940,000 people, about 150 percent as large as congressional districts.

Idaho is the third-most Republican legislature in the country, with 81 percent of the lawmakers in the Grand Old Party. Wyoming, with 87 percent GOP is No. 1, Utah is second.

The most lopsided chamber in the country is the Hawaii Senate, where 96 percent of the members are Democrats.

One last distinction: Idaho has among the highest rates of bills passed in the country. In 2010, 357 of 549 introduced bills became law, or 65 percent. That puts Idaho in the top four states for passage rate.

But Moncrief cautioned that the data ignores a key difference in Idaho: Bill introductions are principally done by committees, with few "personal" bills introduced.

Committees frequently kill bill drafts. In 2010, 816 bills were drafted by legislative staff, but only 549 introduced.

Said Moncrief: "You're not printing it if you don't want it through."

Moncrief also had advice for the freshman class, quoting Colorado State political scientist John Straayer who described the legislative process as "a series of basketball games, all going on at the same time, with players randomly changing teams."

Added Moncrief: "You never know who you're teammate's going to be from one bill to another."

Finally, he said lawmakers should be careful about using social media. "If you haven't figured it out already, your life has changed. Engage your brain before exercising your thumbs. Be circumspect in what you say and what you do."