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State Legislatures

Last Updated: 2006

State legislatures have a significant impact on American federalism due to their constitutional responsibilities, political influence, and intergovernmental roles. They vary remarkably in their organizational structures and methods of operation.

The Constitution gives state legislatures the power to call a convention to propose constitutional amendments and requires them to ratify any amendments proposed by Congress. In historical practice, whenever state legislatures come close to the two-thirds number necessary to call a convention, Congress proposes that same amendment to avoid the convention process. Legislatures have refused to ratify far more proposed amendments than the twenty-seven they have actually approved. Although these constitutional powers are seldom used, they give legislatures leverage in the intergovernmental system.

Legislatures have a direct impact on who gets elected to Congress and the presidency through both their constitutional and political roles. The Constitution specifies that legislatures determine the times, places, and manner of elections to Congress. Within limits established by the Supreme Court, state legislatures determine most provisions of election laws. Particularly important are provisions for both presidential and congressional primary elections and the makeup of districts for the U.S. House of Representatives, which are determined by state legislatures after each decennial census of the population. Historically, state legislatures also elected the members of the U.S. Senate, but this power was given directly to the voters of each state by the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913.

Equally important to their constitutional responsibility is the political role of state legislatures. Serving in a state legislature is a stepping stone to Congress—consistently over the last quarter century, approximately one half of all members of Congress have been former state legislators. State legislators have other bonds with members of Congress through common constituencies, political friendships or rivalries, and campaign collaboration or competition. The combination of constitutional responsibilities and politics keeps Congress at least somewhat responsive to the desires of state legislatures.

In intergovernmental relations, within the constraints of state constitutions, state legislatures determine the domain, shape, and authority of local governments, including such key issues as their taxing and spending authority, the alternative organizational structures that are available to them, and their relationships to each other.

State legislatures play a significant role in implementing requirements, or mandates, placed on the states by the federal government. Many federal mandates in areas such as welfare, health care, education, transportation, and the environment are general in nature and allow leeway on how they are implemented in the states. Most states require that federal funds that flow into the state be reappropriated by the legislature. Although legislatures often cede authority for the implementation of federal requirements to the state executive branch, they are also capable of asserting considerable influence on them.

State legislators try to influence the direction of federal policy through their interaction with their own congressional delegations and their representative in the nation’s capital, the National Conference of State Legislatures. Legislatures vehemently oppose unfunded federal mandates on the states and attempt to prevent federal preemption of state laws and taxing and spending authority. Although legislatures significantly influence the outcomes of federal legislation, their success in stemming unfunded mandates and preemption has been mixed.

Finally, state legislatures famously serve as “laboratories of democracy.” Most new ideas in domestic policy are first debated and negotiated in the states. The federal government often copies the experiences of states or at least uses state legislative innovations to shape federal policy initiatives.

State legislatures operate in a common constitutional and political context. Their common structures include a separation of powers system, bicameralism in all cases except the Nebraska Unicameral, and an enduring two-party system. At the middle of the 2000’s, and for the decade before, state legislatures nationally are divided almost exactly equally between Democrats and Republicans.

Within this common context, legislatures exhibit remarkably diverse organizations and structures. Legislative districts, which by Supreme Court rulings must be of virtually the same population within the same legislative chamber, range greatly in size across states from more than 800,000 in the California Senate to less than 3,000 in the New Hampshire House of Representatives. Terms of office for state legislators are always either two or four years in length. The most common pattern is two years for the house and four for the senate, but some states have two years in each chamber and others have four in both. As a result of voter initiatives that were popular in the early 1990’s, 15 states have enacted limits on the number of terms that legislators can serve.

Legislatures also vary greatly in their capacity and resources, as measured by the amount of time they spend on the job, their compensation, and the staff available to them. Approximately one quarter of them are highly professionalized—their legislators spend virtually full-time on the job, are paid enough to make a living without holding other jobs, and have quite large staffs. Another one-third of the states are at the opposite extreme—they are part-time, “citizen” legislatures with very low pay and minimal staff resources. The remaining states are hybrids that fall in between these two extremes.

Regardless of their level of professionalization, since the early 1970’s all state legislatures have increased the amount of time they spend on the job and added to their resources. This has helped them to function as independent, coequal branches of government in an increasingly complex world and to cope with additional state responsibility in the federal system.

SEE ALSO: State Government


Alan Rosenthal, Heavylifting: The Job of the American Legislature (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2004); Alan Rosenthal, Burdett Loomis, John Hibbing, and Karl T. Kurtz, Republic on Trial: The Case for Representative Democracy (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2003); and State Legislaturesmagazine (Denver: National Conference of State Legislatures, monthly issues; see especially Carl Tubbesing, “The State-Federal Tug of War,” July–August 1999).