Full-time lawmakers dominate legislature, with fewer attorneys and ranchers

Arthur Kane
Posted: Feb 10, 2016 5:21 AM
Full-time lawmakers dominate legislature, with fewer attorneys and ranchers

STACKED HOUSE: More professional lawmakers are filling the seats in the state Senate (shown here) and the House.

One-third of Colorado lawmakers self-identify their profession as legislators, mirroring a trend where career politicians have replaced lawyers, ranchers and business owners at the statehouse.

The National Conference of State Legislatures tracks the makeup of the 50 state assemblies because profession, ethnicity and gender often provide a window into what laws make it onto the books.

“I still think it is probably a desirable quality that people in the legislature are fairly representative of their district,” said Karl Kurtz, an NCSL contractor who conducted the national 2015 study. “Everybody has a self-interest that makes up their experience, so occupation is certainly an experience just as growing up in Denver impacts your world view.”

Colorado’s percentage of self-described legislators is nearly three times the national average of 12 percent. Watchdog.org calculated Colorado’s lawmaker occupations using the legislative directory.

CAPITOL WATCHER: CSU professor John Straayer said term limits and redistricting have changed the makeup of the statehouse.

The top category nationwide for lawmaker profession is business people, but that includes business owners and people who work for businesses. Business owners are about 13 percent nationwide — lower than Colorado’s 17 percent.

RELATED: Lawmakers pull in per diem on holidays, weekends.

Attorneys, who have historically dominated the legislature, are dropping as a percent of lawmakers with about 14 percent nationwide down from 22.3 in 1976. In Colorado, attorneys comprise 8 percent of lawmakers in this current session.

“l would want a legislature with a certain number of lawyers having that we’re dealing with making laws, but having a majority might be a negative thing,” Kurtz said.

He attributed the decline in the number of lawyers in legislatures to the increasing expense and demands in building a successful legal career.

As might be expected, nearly twice as many Democrats (21) identify as full-time politicians as do Republicans (12), the Watchdog analysis shows.

Colorado State University professor John Straayer said having a large percentage of people who identify solely as lawmakers is counterintuitive in Colorado, which has a part-time legislature and pays only $30,000 a year plus expenses.

He suspected many of those full-time lawmakers were former legislative aides who are using a House or Senate seat as a stepping stone to a political career. Others are retired people starting a second career in politics, he added.

“Retired people might be looking for something to do with themselves and if they had an interest in politics and a seat opens up, they may take it,” he said.

Kurtz said NCSL surveys show Colorado lawmakers report spending an average 75 to 80 percent of their work time year around on their legislative jobs, despite the legislature meeting only from January to May.

Colorado has also seen a decline in ranchers as redistricting brings more lawmakers from urban areas. Straayer said that will affect the type of legislation the public sees coming out of the General Assembly.

“For ranchers it’s water, rural roads and it’s access to high-speed Internet in rural areas,” he said.