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3 Big Quirks That Make State Legislatures Different from Congress

Learning about how laws are made is the stuff of civics 101. The inner workings of independent state legislatures, however, are as unique as the states they serve.

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Learning about how laws are made is the stuff of civics 101. The inner workings of independent state legislatures, however, are as unique as the states they serve.

The same general legislative process plays out at all levels of government, but states have added unique twists to meet specific needs. Understanding these nuances provides insight into how laws are made at state houses across the country.

That means it’s time for civics 201.

1. This is Not Their Full-Time Job

Job descriptions for state senators and representatives vary at state houses across the country. Public office is a full-time job in a handful of states, but elected officials in most states balance public and private careers.

And there are stark differences from state to state.

California, for example, paid its full-time state legislators a $104,118 salary in 2017. New Hampshire, meanwhile, pays its part-time lawmakers $200 for a two-year term without per diem. In New Mexico state legislators do not get a salary, but are entitled to a per diem.

Compare that to the $174,000 salary that rank-and-file members of Congress earn.

California, New York and Pennsylvania have full-time legislatures. Alaska, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin have limited full-time legislatures. Accordingly, lawmakers in these states receive higher compensation and have larger staffs.

Twenty-four states have “hybrid” legislatures in which lawmakers spend the equivalent of two-thirds of a full-time job on state business.

Legislatures in the remaining 16 states operate on a part-time basis.

That means many state senators and representatives have day jobs. They balance personal and public responsibilities as best they can, but tales of role strain are commonplace.

That played out in Florida when lawmakers were called into special session in August a couple of years ago. State Rep. Bob Cores, R-Altamonte Springs, who operates a towing company, summed up the challenge.

“We had to make some changes,” Cortes said, via WFSU public media. “I had to bring some people in to take care of the office while I was not there. Since we just went through one session, we’re just going to have to repeat exactly what we did. It’s somewhat of a burden; however, when I took this job, I took it with the understanding that even though it might seem part-time, this is nowhere near (part-time). This is full-time.”

[Free Report: 52 Statehouse Reporters Review the Top 5 Public Policy Issues in Each State]

2. Legislative Sessions Are All Over the Map

Congress convenes throughout the year, every year, albeit with wide swaths of time off baked into their schedule.

About 50 years ago, most state legislatures met only once every two years. That’s hard to imagine, given the feverish amount of legislation that flows from state houses today.

By the mid-1970s, 41 states had shifted to annual legislative sessions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Today, state legislatures in just four states meet on a biannual basis: Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Texas.

The Texas Legislature holds 140-day legislative sessions biannually unless the governor calls a special session to tackle a specific issue.

On the flip side, legislative sessions in California, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey and Wisconsin span eight months or longer each year.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, state legislatures with lengthy annual sessions don’t necessarily meet more than states with biannual sessions. The full Wisconsin Legislature, for example, met 34 times during the 2011-2012 legislative session (excluding committee hearings) even though the session spanned 12 months.

Legislative sessions in 18 states are shorter than three months long: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Still, legislative sessions often go into overtime. The Washington State Legislature spent 176 days in session in 2015, well beyond the prescribed 90 days – the most in that state’s history.

“We finished our session right around the first of July,” State Rep. Steve Tharinger said at the time, via the Peninsula Daily News. “The bad news is it took a long time. The good news is I think we worked out what is a very good budget for the state of Washington.”

Special sessions are always a possibility, too. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton called the legislature into special session in June, and he has already indicated that another special session may be in order to prevent the walleye-fishing season from being cut short, the Star Tribune reports.

3. Streamline Procedures Abound

State governments have limited time and resources to make laws.

Whereas Congress is comfortable deliberating on any given topic for years (see: U.S. Senate), many states have mechanisms in place to make the legislative process more efficient and cost-effective.

Twelve states use streamline provisions that limit the number of bills that can be introduced in a given legislative session. These streamline provisions may apply to one or both houses of state legislatures.

A deadline system is more commonplace. Deadline provisions pertain to the introduction of bills, committee action, house of origin action, second house action and conference committee action. Seventy-three legislative chambers have deadline systems in place.

Some states also limit the ability of lawmakers to introduce amendments to expedite the legislative process. Bill revisions are limited to the committee of the whole in seven states: Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Michigan (senate, not assembly), Minnesota, Montana and Wyoming.

In 32 legislative chambers, lawmakers are required (or encouraged) to pre-file amendments. Thirteen chambers require written analysis for all floor amendments, and 20 chambers present written explanations for some floor amendments, but not all.

These provisions are tailored to prevent an end-of-session “long jam” of unfinished business. Inevitably, that often happens anyway.

A report by the NCLS found that the most common causes of logjams in state houses are continuing negotiations on budget bills and other substantial pieces of legislation, or by one political wing stalling a bill as a leverage tool.

After all, wherever there is legislation, there will also be politics.

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