Legislatures, State

views updated May 11 2018


LEGISLATURES, STATE. Citizens of the states have long struggled with the issue of how powerful their legislatures should be. Power in this context has two important dimensions: authority relative to governors, and the ability to enact laws and oversee their implementation.

The First States

The constitutions of the first states clearly designated the legislative bodies as the dominant institution of state government. To avoid the kind of rule previously imposed by colonial governors, legislatures were empowered to enact laws, to appoint key administrators of state agencies, to levy taxes, and to determine how public monies were to be spent. Over one-half of the initial state legislatures acted without fear of gubernatorial vetoes.

Similarly, the U.S. Constitution initially recognized state legislatures as the key unit of democracy and legitimacy. State legislators, not voters, elected individuals to the U.S. Senate, and electors designated by each state's legislative body chose the president. Ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, providing for direct election to the Senate, did not occur until 1913, although a few progressive states adopted the change on their own a decade earlier. State legislatures still have the authority to determine who will be their representatives in the Electoral College, although all now let that be decided by the popular vote for president.

Despite the relative dominance of the legislatures in state governments, these bodies had limited capabilities. Members were, by design, amateurs. Those elected to state legislatures served part-time and met infrequently—typically once every two years for a period of two or three months. Legislators usually had no offices and no staff. There were virtually no resources available to aid in the analysis of proposed policy or to help evaluate the performance of state agencies. On the other hand, the scope of operations of state governments was very limited in the early days of the republic.

Regional Differences

Regional differences among the states began to emerge after the Civil War. Those states that had joined the Confederate States of America had to adopt new constitutions that banned slavery, disenfranchised those active in the Confederacy, and reconstituted their state governments. In the decade following the Civil War, eleven southern states adopted twenty-seven different constitutions as they struggled with the transition back to the Union. The end result was state governments that were generally weak. Governors were limited to two-year terms and could not succeed themselves. Legislatures were restricted to meeting for as little as two months once every two years.

Western states joined the Union during the height of the Progressive Era, during which time there was much concern about the power of the political machines. Their constitutions provided for relatively weak legislatures by allowing citizens to bypass the legislature through the Direct Initiative—which allows for the enactment of laws in statewide referenda. These states also adopted primaries to let voters, not bosses, nominate party candidates. Citizens could recall elected officials from office.


Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, state legislatures increasingly became marginal because urban areas were not fully represented. The boundaries of legislative districts remained constant throughout most of this period despite the rapid growth of cities and suburbs. Tennessee, for example, based its districts on a 1901 statute and by 1954 had one representative with nineteen times as many voters as another legislator coming from a more rural area. In 1962 the United States Supreme Court, in Baker v. Carr 369 U.S. 186 (1962), ruled that such discrepancies violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court mandated that state legislatures must adhere to the principle of one-person-one-vote and must draw boundaries in such a manner that each district has the same number of eligible voters.

In a 1977 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court added another principle of representation. In United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg, Inc. v. Hugh L. Carey the Court prohibited gerrymandering intended to minimize the chances of electing a member of an ethnic minority group. This decision did, however, allow state legislatures to draw boundaries that made minority representation probable. The challenge of ensuring minority representation without relying solely on race when drawing legislative district boundaries has led to subsequent litigation.

The effect of making state legislatures more representative was profound. Prior to Baker v. Carr, state legislatures tended to be irrelevant to many of the major issues facing a state. Misrepresentation meant that the agendas of these bodies did not include the needs and concerns of growing urban areas. Decisions, similarly, did not reflect the values of the majority of the state's electorate. However, once the principles of equal representation were implemented, legislative agendas included urgent contemporary issues and attracted candidates for office who were serious, capable people.


In the aftermath of Baker v. Carr, state legislatures became more professionalized. In states such as New York, California, Michigan, and Ohio, the job of state legislator became full-time and was compensated accordingly. In all states, professionalization meant getting staff to help with the tasks critical to deliberative policymaking.

Only eight state legislatures met annually in 1960. By 1969 that number grew to eighteen and in 2002 only seven state legislatures did not meet annually. The average salary of state legislators in 1960 was only $3,738—a clear indication of the part-time, amateur status of this position. By 1970 the average rose to $7,248 and by 2000 it was $24,489. Salaries in 2000 varied from $100 in New Hampshire to $99,000 in California. In addition, legislators in every state received from $50 to $125 for each day that they were in session or in legislative hearings.

In some states, legislators have their own personal assistants, who aid in clerical and analytical work. Another pattern is the employment of staff agencies for legislative committees, partisan caucuses, and the legislature as a whole. Since the mid-1960s, thirty-one state legislatures have established audit bureaus, which help evaluate the work of administrative agencies, and reference bureaus, which do research much like that done by the Library of Congress. From 1968 to 1973, staff of state legislatures grew 134 percent, and expansion has continued at an annual rate of about 4 percent since then. Since the mid-1970s, state legislators have also been able to draw upon the staff resources of two major national organizations: the Council of State Governments and the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Term Limits

In part as a response to the professionalization of state legislatures and in part as a way of dislodging longtime incumbents from office, a movement began in the 1980s to limit the number of terms an individual could serve. Term limits applied to governors in twenty-four states in 1960 and in thirty-three in 2000, but this concept has traditionally not applied to legislators. Proponents argued that states are best served by citizen legislatures that are part-time and have regular turnover of people and ideas. Opponents cite the advantages of professionalism, especially in light of the workload of state legislatures and the need to match the strength of governors, bureaucracies, and interest groups. The concern is that a lack of continuity may lead to a loss of institutional memory and the advantages that come with experience.

Proponents have been most successful in getting the adoption of term limits in states that allow the Direct Initiative. Their efforts first succeeded when California and Colorado voters endorsed term limits for their state legislators in 1990. Eventually twenty states took similar action by 2000, although the state courts in Massachusetts, Washington, and Oregon voided the action as unconstitutional. In nine states, no one can serve in the state legislature for more than eight years. Five have a limit of twelve years and three allow six years for the lower chamber and eight years for the upper chamber.

Although term limits took effect in Maine in 1996, most other states set 2000 or later as implementation dates. In 2002 71 percent of the Senate seats in Michigan became vacant because of term limits. In Missouri, 46 percent of its House seats were opened and in six other states the turnover was 25 percent. These figures contrast with normal turnover rates of 20 to 35 percent in states without term limits. The requirement to leave office after a specified period of time guarantees a minimum turnover rate that is only slightly higher than the rate in states without term limits. The major effect of term limits has been to ensure that no single legislator stays in office for a long period of time.

Party Control

The partisan composition of a state's legislature has generally been consistent with how the electors in that state vote for president and members of Congress. The major exception to this principle is that when a state changes its party preference, the state legislature tends to lag behind. The major reason for this is that incumbents are usually successful in their bid for reelection, regardless of whether their party is in favor.

Democrats dominated southern state legislatures throughout the twentieth century. Since the 1950s, however, the Democratic Party in the South has not had the same policy preferences as the national Democratic Party. Increasingly, southern states began voting for Republican presidential candidates and sent Republicans to Congress. Republican gubernatorial candidates began winning. State legislatures were not affected until 1994, when Republicans won 37 percent of the state legislative races in the South and took control of three chambers. Republicans increased their representation in subsequent elections, and southern states, like most others, became very competitive for the two major parties.

Through increasing professionalization, state legislatures have generally become very competent policy makers, with access to expertise and analysis. They have become more representative and more reflective of the values of state voters. In relative terms, however, legislatures have lost the clear position of dominance they had in the first states. The office of Governor has acquired considerable authority, and, in some states, the electorate can circumvent the legislature and enact laws through the Direct Initiative.


Benjamin, Gerald, and Michael J. Malbin, eds. Limiting Legislative Terms. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1992.

Bowman, Ann O'M., and Richard C. Kearney. The Resurgence of the States. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1986.

Council of State Governments. Home page at www.csg.org.

Dresang, Dennis L., and James J. Gosling. Politics and Policy in American States and Communities. 3d edition. New York: Longman, 2002.

Hickok, Eugene W., Jr. The Reform of State Legislatures and the Changing Character of Representation. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1992.

Jewell, Malcolm E. Representation in State Legislatures. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982.

Key, V. O., Jr. American State Politics. New York: Knopf, 1956.

Miewald, Robert D. Nebraska Government and Politics. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

National Conference of State Legislatures. Home page at www.ncsl.org.

O'Rourke, Timothy. The Impact of Reapportionment. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1980.

Rosenthal, Alan. Legislative Life: People, Process, and Performance in the States. Cambridge, Mass: Harper and Row, 1981.

Smith, T. V. The Legislative Way of Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940.

Uslaner, Eric M., and Ronald E. Weber. Patterns of Decision Making in State Legislatures. New York: Praeger, 1977.


See alsoLegislatures, Bicameral and Unicameral ; Proportional Representation ; andvol. 9:Congress Debates the Fourteenth Amendment .

National Conference of State Legislatures

views updated May 17 2018


The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) was founded in 1975 with the conviction that legislative service is one of democracy's worthiest pursuits. Representing the citizens of a district and the people of a state is the very essence of free government.

NCSL is recognized as the preeminent bipartisan organization dedicated to serving the lawmakers and staffs of the nation's fifty states, its commonwealths, and its territories. It is known nationally for its leadership. All the nation's legislators and legislative staff are members of NCSL. A sixty-member executive committee, elected yearly and composed of legislators and staff, governs NCSL under the leadership of seven officers.

With a focus on service, NCSL is a source for research, publications, consulting assistance, meetings, and seminars. It is the only organization that provides an open, bipartisan, national forum for lawmakers to communicate with one another and share ideas. NCSL is an effective and respected voice for the states in Washington, D.C., representing their interests before the U.S. Congress, the presidential administration, and federal agencies.

The issues legislatures confront are increasingly complex. Each year NCSL answers more than 16,000 questions from legislators and staff. The researchers at NCSL provide lawmakers and their staffs with expert information on a variety of issues, including welfare reform, education, criminal justice, energy, environment, transportation, health care, children and families, the legislative institution, economic development, state finances, uninsured children, automobile insurance, workers' compensation, nuclear waste, clean air and water, gaming, education funding, immigrants, managed care, ethics, and many others.

Each year, NCSL produces some 160 books, newsletters, briefs, and other publications, including State Legislatures magazine, on topics of interest to the states. Its Internet site provides thousands of documents from states as well as those published by NCSL. The site includes numerous databases, features listservs through which lawmakers and staff can communicate, and provides users the ability to perform comprehensive research using multistate searches of legislation, statutes, audits, and other legislative documents.

NCSL assists lawmakers in crafting legislation and in seeking expert witnesses to testify before committees. NCSL also conducts special workshops on specific issues and training programs for legislators and staff. NCSL specialists work with legislative leaders on direct consultation projects on legislative organization and management, rules and procedures, committee operations, personnel policies, strategic planning, and related institutional issues. Nearly half of the sixty-member NCSL executive committee is composed of state legislators.

Legislators and legislative staff have numerous opportunities to attend NCSL meetings on a variety of issues and topics throughout the year. The annual meeting provides more than 160 informative sessions and presents nationally renowned speakers on important concerns. Like legislatures, NCSL is structured to allow free and open debate in committees. The Assembly on Federal Issues is comprised of lawmakers who are interested in federal issues and how they relate to the states. The assembly helps guide NCSL's lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C., through the work of nine committees, and its members are appointed by the presiding leaders in the states. The leader-to-leader meeting, held in Washington, D.C., each year, is the premier gathering for state legislative leaders to discuss pressing federal issues with congressional leaders, cabinet officers, key members of the administration, and often the president. Both legislators and staff can be appointed to the Assembly on State Issues. Through its eight standing committees, members address a set of topics from cultural and economic development and fiscal matters to science and technology.

Legislatures cannot run effectively without professional, high-quality staff. NCSL offers a wealth of learning and professional development opportunities for staff. Among them are an annual seminar to help staff sharpen their skills in research, program evaluation, fiscal analysis, bill drafting, and legislative procedures. Specialized meetings cover presentation skills, media relations, legal research, and skills development in other areas.

NCSL has ten professional staff organizations for researchers, fiscal officers, leadership staff, legal services staff, legislative clerks, secretaries, computer staff, research librarians, program evaluators, and security personnel. With the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, NCSL also cosponsors the Legislative Staff Management Institute, an intensive, two-week executive management seminar for senior legislative staff.

NCSL's Leaders' Center assists legislative leaders in meeting the challenges of managing the institution, crafting the best possible public policy, creating consensus out of dissension, communicating with Congress and key administration officials, and protecting and promoting the legislative institution. The Leaders' Center offers specialized services including publications, timely policy information, and ideas for innovative management, and sponsors the annual Leadership Institute for emerging leaders. NCSL offers leaders opportunities to enhance skills, communicate with colleagues in other states, and meet with members of Congress and the administration.

NCSL created the foundation for state legislatures in 1982 to support the innovative research, seminars, and publications for NCSL and the work of two major programs: the Acclaimed Trust for Representative Democracy and the Center for Ethics in Government. The foundation is committed to the important work of strengthening America's legislatures, counteracting cynicism and distrust of the legislative process, and helping lawmakers confront and solve the critical issues of the time.

NCSL's Center for Ethics in Government was created to address a most critical, fundamental and far-reaching problem facing the United States: the loss of public trust and confidence in representative democracy. The center is founded on the principles of belief in representative democracy and the legislative process and that all who work in the public sector have a particular responsibility to operate with high ethical standards. By facilitating ethics sessions for legislators, staff, and state government affairs professionals and through its research arm, the center is a leading force in promoting responsible behavior in legislatures and educating the public on the importance of the legislative process.

NCSL is an extension of the legislature. Its mission is to improve the quality and effectiveness of state legislatures, to serve as the forum for exchanging information and ideas among legislatures, and to ensure that legislatures have a strong, cohesive voice in the federal system.

internet resource

National Conference of State Legislatures. 2002. <www.ncsl.org>.

Ginger Sampson

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