Indivisible States: How State Legislatures Work

If you know how one state legislature works… then you know how one state legislature works. State legislatures are like miniature Congresses — but no two are exactly alike. This section will highlight how state legislators think, and the similarities and differences between state legislatures.

What Motivates Your State Legislators?

  • State legislators care about re-election. Just like your federal representatives, your state legislators are elected by their constituents. Therefore, they need your vote in order to remain in (or win) office. This is the primary source of your power.

  • State legislators care about passing bills. Legislators often consider the number of bills they get signed into law as a measure of their success. This can be problematic because it can drive a culture of compromise that drives them to water down otherwise good bills so the legislators to claim a win. Sometimes legislators need pressure to hold strong against bad amendments, not just to vote the right way on the final bill.

  • State legislators often are not used to hearing from constituents. With some exceptions (such as when a controversial bill is moving), state legislatures do not receive much media attention — which means that many constituents do not know what is going on. As a result, people don’t usually engage in the state legislative process, and legislators are more often responsive to lobbyists in the capitol than their own constituents. Replacing apathy with activism presents an enormous opportunity for you to make an impact at your statehouse.

  • State legislators are influenced by money and lobbying. Because state legislators don't receive much media attention compared to national politicians, they also aren't the benefactors of grassroots fundraising attention. This opens up the floodgates for lobbyists and PACs to fund campaigns, even among Democrats. Again, this presents an opportunity: even a slight increase in grassroots fundraising for progressive state legislators could make a difference for them.

  • State legislatures are seen as a pipeline for higher office. Many national politicians start their careers in state legislatures. Twenty-two former U.S. Presidents (including President Obama!), 22 former Vice Presidents, 44 current sitting Senators, and 220 current Congressional representatives served in state legislatures before moving to national office. If your state has term limits for state offices, your legislators may be more likely to seek higher office and be even more receptive to constituent pressure as a way of protecting their future electoral prospects.

What Do State Legislatures Have in Common?

Even though each state legislature is unique, many of them share a few basic characteristics:

  • Most legislatures are bicameral. This just means they have two chambers. (The exception to this rule is Nebraska, which only has a single legislative chamber.) The states that are bicameral usually have a “lower” house which has more members that represent smaller geographical areas (like the federal House of Representatives) and an “upper” house which has fewer members that represent larger geographical areas (like the federal Senate). The “lower” house is often called the House or Assembly, and the “upper” house is called the state Senate.

  • Legislative sessions start at the beginning of the year. Most legislatures start in January or February, but vary in length. This is important because lawmakers use the months preceding their legislative session to collect ideas for bills. If you have an idea for legislation that you would like introduced, you need to hit the ground running after the election.

  • Bills are supported (and often written by) outside groups who work with legislators to help get the bill passed.

  • Many bills are moving simultaneously through a given state legislature. There are usually hundreds or even thousands of bills introduced in a single legislative session.

  • Bills go through three “readings” to pass through a chamber. The first reading is when a bill is first introduced into the chamber. The bill is then usually assigned to policy committee(s) which will assess the bill. After the bill is reported out of policy committee to the floor, it undergoes the second reading. which is often when amendments to the committee-reported bill are allowed. The third reading is when the bill is voted on by the legislators for final passage.

  • Bills must pass both chambers of a legislature and be signed by the Governor in order to become law. In some states, if the Governor does not proactively veto a bill, it still becomes law without their signature.

  • The committee process is extremely important. Though committee structures vary by state, as a general principle bills must pass through specialized committees of jurisdiction before they go to the floor of a chamber, similar to Congress. This is often where substantive amendments are made (though amendments can often also be made on the floor). Each committee has a chairperson who exerts a great deal of control over what happens in the committee by deciding things like which bills get heard, which ones never get brought up, and the schedule it all happens on. Constituent involvement in the committee process through direct engagement with committee members, public testimony, or written statements can be enormously impactful.

  • The legislative leadership is usually very powerful. Similar to how Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan exert an enormous amount of power over what bills see the light of day in Congress, the leaders of each state legislative chamber also have a great deal of power. They often determine committee assignments for legislators, and decide to which committee proposed bill should be assigned for consideration. They can even sometimes unilaterally hold a bill and prevent it from moving forward. They also have power over things that constituents never see but that could play a role in policymaking, like individual office budgets, committee staff resources, staff salaries, and who gets which actual physical office spaces.

    That being said, leadership may be more or less powerful in a given state depending on the political factors in that state. For example, a battleground state may have less entrenched leadership since power may oscillate back and forth between parties. Similarly, states with term limits that exhibit more turnover will place less emphasis on leadership than states with unlimited terms. On the other hand, a single-party ruled state will likely have more entrenched leadership.

What Makes State Legislatures Different from Each Other?

Despite the similarities named above, legislatures do differ in some key ways that will affect your advocacy strategy:

  • Each state legislature meets for different lengths of time, ranging from 30 days every other year to year-round. Believe it or not, only nine states have full-time legislatures — California, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Alaska, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The rest of the states meet part-time with some states like Montana, Nevada, Texas, North Dakota only meeting in odd-numbered years.

  • The legislative process is different for each state. Bills can usually originate in either chamber, and then cross over to the other house. However, in some states, bills that increase or decrease revenue must start in the lower house and then move to the upper house. Some legislatures have internal deadlines within their session for bills to pass out of committee or cross over to the second house. Others have no internal deadlines and the process is a free-for-all. Some have rules about how long bills must take to move through a process, while others don’t.

  • Each state has different numbers of representatives. A single legislative chamber could have as few as 20 members, as many as 400, or anywhere in between.

  • Each state varies in the amount of resources and staff that legislators have. Legislators in California have tons of resources and each legislator has multiple staff and aides, while legislators from New Hampshire may be lucky to even have one paid staff person and may be entirely staffed by volunteers. Similarly, legislators in some states may have offices in their home districts as well as at the state capital, while in other states, they may only have capital offices.

  • Your state may have other unique features. Look for other things that may make your state particularly unique. Does your state have a lame duck session? Does your state have a rule that every bill introduced must have a hearing? Does your state have rules for bills that require appropriation of money? How important is the budget process in your state? Each state has its own idiosyncrasies so learn yours.

How Can You Learn About Your Own State’s Legislature?

You’ll need to learn about how your own state’s legislature works and who represents you.

Who Represents Me?

  1. Find your state legislators, their official websites, and their office contact info.

  2. Sign up on your legislators’ websites and social media platforms to receive regular updates, invites to local events, and propaganda to understand what they’re saying. Every legislator has an e-newsletter.

  3. Find out where your legislators stand on the issues of the day in your community. Review their voting history and their biggest campaign contributors.

  4. Set up a Google News Alert — for example for “Rep. Bob Smith” — to receive an email whenever your legislators are in the news.

  5. Research on Google News what local reporters have written about your legislators. Find and follow those reporters on Twitter, and build relationships. Before you attend or plan an event, reach out and explain why your group is protesting, and provide them with background materials and a quote. Journalists on deadline — even those who might not agree with you — appreciate when you provide easy material for a story.

How Does My Legislature Work?

Here are some basic questions to ask yourself when learning about your state’s legislative process.

State Legislative Session Dates




State

Start Date

End Date

Alabama

03/25/2019

05/23/2019

Alaska

01/15/2019

05/16/2020

Arizona

01/14/2019

05/11/2019

Arkansas

01/14/2019

05/02/2019

California

12/03/2018

09/13/2019

Colorado

01/09/2019

05/11/2019

Connecticut

01/09/2019

06/08/2019

Delaware

01/08/2019

06/30/2020

Florida

03/05/2019

05/03/2019

Georgia

01/14/2019

03/20/2020

Hawaii

01/16/2019

05/03/2020

Idaho

01/07/2019

03/30/2019

Illinois

01/09/2019

01/06/2021

Indiana

01/14/2019

04/21/2019

Iowa

01/14/2019

04/21/2020

Kansas

01/14/2019

06/26/2019

Kentucky

01/08/2019

03/30/2019

Louisiana

04/14/2019

06/06/2019

Maine

12/05/2018

04/15/2020

Maryland

01/09/2019

04/10/2019

Massachusetts

01/02/2019

01/07/2021

Michigan

01/09/2019

12/31/2020

Minnesota

01/08/2019

05/21/2020

Mississippi

01/08/2019

03/30/2019

Missouri

01/09/2019

05/31/2019

Montana

01/07/2019

04/20/2019

Nebraska

01/09/2019

04/15/2020

Nevada

02/04/2019

06/04/2019

New Hampshire

01/02/2019

06/30/2019

New Jersey

01/09/2018

01/07/2020

New Mexico

01/15/2019

03/16/2019

New York

01/09/2019

01/06/2021

North Carolina

01/16/2019

06/30/2020

North Dakota

01/03/2019

04/26/2019

Ohio

01/07/2019

12/31/2020

Oklahoma

02/05/2019

05/25/2020

Oregon

02/05/2019

06/01/2019

Pennsylvania

01/01/2019

11/30/2020

Rhode Island

01/01/2019

06/30/2019

South Carolina

01/08/2019

06/08/2020

South Dakota

01/08/2019

03/29/2019

Tennessee

01/08/2019

05/08/2020

Texas

01/08/2019

05/27/2019

Utah

01/28/2019

03/14/2019

Vermont

01/09/2019

05/12/2020

Virginia

01/09/2019

03/09/2019

Washington

01/14/2019

04/22/2020

West Virginia

01/09/2019

03/09/2019

Wisconsin

01/07/2019

01/04/2021

Wyoming

01/08/2019

03/09/2019

Read More

To learn more about the ins and outs of your particular state, it can be helpful to connect with experts (partners, legislators, legislative staff) and pick their brains to learn what goes on behind the scenes of the legislative process. 

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Indivisible States: Empowering States to Resist the Trump Agenda by Indivisible Project is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.