State Legislatures: An Explainer

When most people think about the legislative branch of government, they think about the U.S. Congress. But all 50 states have their own.

50 States, 50 State Legislatures

All 50 states have their own mini version of federal executive, legislative, and judicial bodies. Instead of a president, states have governors, and instead of Congress, states have their own legislatures. Like the Federal Court system that culminates in the U.S. Supreme Court, states have their own court systems that are headed by the state Supreme Court.

“State legislature” is a generic term referring to the legislative body that is responsible for making the laws for the state. Specific names vary by state, including “general assembly,” “general court,” “legislative assembly,” or even just “legislature.”

Every state except Nebraska has a bicameral legislature, meaning one with two houses, just as the United States Congress has the House of Representatives and Senate.

The smaller of the two state chambers is called the Senate or State Senate. It is considered the “upper house”. Members of the State Senate represent more citizens and usually serve for longer terms than members of the other chamber. Additionally, the State Senate usually — but not always — has the exclusive power to confirm appointments made by the governor.

In 41 states, the lower chamber is called the “House of Representatives.” Given that the upper and lower chamber of the U.S. Congress is also called the Senate and the House of Representative, it can get pretty tricky when discussing state and federal legislatures, legislators, and bills.

Five states designate this chamber the “Assembly,” and three states call it the “House of Delegates.” Members of this chamber, called State Representatives or State Legislators, usually serve for terms of two years and it customarily has the exclusive power to initiate taxing legislation and write articles of impeachment.

Similar to the process in the U.S. Congress, both chambers of a legislature must vote to pass a bill before it is eligible to become a law. Bills that pass both chambers are generally signed into law by the Governor. However, in some states, if the Governor does not proactively veto a bill, it still becomes law without their signature.

A Citizen Legislature

A “legislative session” is the period of time when legislative members are actively lawmaking — debating and voting on bills. Generally, members are at the state capitol and away from the districts they represent during this time period. When legislatures are not in session, members typically return to the districts they represent where they can spend time meeting and addressing the concerns of the voters in their districts. Frequency and duration of legislative sessions varies greatly between states..

In many states, legislatures are only in session for part of the year. In some states, these legislative sessions only occur every other year meaning the role of state legislator can be more part-time or seasonal. In fact, only eleven percent of state legislators classify their elected position as their full-time job — the rest are attorneys, teachers, doctors, business owners, retired workers, and many other professions.

This practice of elected state legislative positions being part-time commitments is often referred to as a “citizen legislature” since, for the majority of the year, legislators do not have any official duties for their elected positions. The citizen legislatures were initially conceived to be an informal group of citizens who are modestly compensated — almost like a stipend for some of their time — rather than these state representatives being full-time positions.

Since state lawmakers in a part-time legislature have other jobs, it is possible — and not uncommon — for them to vote in favor of policies that will personally benefit their private businesses or industries. Thus, some argue that citizen legislatures are more prone to ethical dilemmas and conflicts of interest. However, proponents of citizen legislatures argue that the life experience that lawmakers possess by having an outside job makes them more well-rounded people who can better relate to and represent their constituents.

State Legislative Races Matter — More Than You Might Think

Just like every other elected official, candidates for state legislature are regularly on your ballot. While there is a lot of focus on federal elections, state governance typically has a bigger impact on our everyday lives.

Not only are far more laws decided at the state level than federal, most laws pass at the federal level only after those policies have gained public support and been passed in several states. For example, same-sex marriage only became a popular policy after state-level organizers and state legislatures passed marriage equality bills. Similarly, we are seeing a similar trend as several states have legalized medical and recreational use of marijuana prompting the question when the federal government will consider changing its policy.

Your state legislators are crucial in deciding the laws in your state and how much power people have in your state when it comes to democracy. If you feel passionately about issues like housing, education, LGBTQIA+ rights, racial justice, equal pay, election administration, healthcare, voting, gun violence, criminal justice reform, and so much more, then it is critical to vote for state legislators who represent your interests.

If you’d like to learn more about the specifics of your state legislature:

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