Crash Course:
State Legislatures

The lion’s share of the important work on police reform will take place in state capitals across America. From Salem, Oregon to Augusta, Maine and everywhere in between, lawmakers at the state level are charged with tackling their states’ most daunting challenges. But as integral to our governing structure as these elected officials are, they tend to fly under the radar. While the White House and Congress get all of the headlines, state legislators can have a significant impact on your community. On this page, you can find the information you need to better understand how your state legislature operates and how you can advocate for police reform in your home state.

 

Let’s get into the basics of state legislatures:

State Legislature Setup

Every state except Nebraska* models their legislature off the bicameral (two-chambered) system of the United States Congress. The lower house, the House of Representatives (House of Delegates in MD, VA, and WV), is the larger of the two chambers and members are usually up for reelection every two years. The upper house, called the Senate in every state, has fewer members and terms tend to be twice as long as those in the lower house.

* Nebraska’s legislature is a unicameral body made up of 49 members (called senators) elected without formal party affiliation. That’s right, you won’t hear the terms Republican or Democrat at the legislature in Lincoln. Instead, senators are often categorized as “liberal” or “conservative.”

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? For the most part, you’re correct, but there’s another layer to consider. Types of legislatures:

Citizen Legislatures

  • Often used in states with smaller populations, these are legislatures where lawmakers receive little to no annual pay, have limited staff (if any), and meet for only a few months out of the year.

  • Lawmakers elected to these bodies typically have another job that serves as their primary source of income.

  • States using this model: Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming

Hybrid Legislatures

  • Usually found in the middle of the population range (though Texas and Florida are big exceptions), these are legislative bodies where members receive a modest salary plus a set payment per session day, have a moderate staff, and are in session for about ⅔ of the year.

  • While pay is higher than citizen legislatures, lawmakers typically still have jobs outside of their position in state government.

  • States using this model: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington

Full-Time Legislatures

  • In these states, the work of being a legislator is a full-time job (or at least eighty percent of one). Members have large staffs and are paid enough for their service to make ends meet without another source of income.

  • States using this model: California, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Alaska, Hawai’i, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, Wisconsin

Okay, different states have different setups. Makes sense. But how exactly does a bill make its way through the legislature? Let’s dive in!

The Legislative Process

Step 1: Introduction

  • A lawmaker, often on behalf of a constituent, will introduce a bill to be considered by the legislature.

    While pay is higher than citizen legislatures, lawmakers typically still have jobs outside of their position in state government.

  • The bill is given its “first reading” on the floor.

  • At this point, the chamber (either the House or Senate) will send the legislation to the relevant committee for review.

Step 2: In Committee

  • Once assigned to a committee, hearings are held to gather input from the public and subject experts.

  • If committee members don’t like the policy proposal, they can vote against it and end consideration of the bill during the current session. This is known as “dying in committee.”

  • If the committee members sign off on the legislation, they’ll vote to send it to the floor for review by the whole chamber.

Step 3: Back to the Floor

  • After a committee sends the bill back to the main chamber, it’s time for the “second reading” of the bill.

  • At this stage, lawmakers can attach amendments to modify the legislation. Each amendment must be voted on individually. This is frequently used as a stalling tactic by legislators opposed to a particular policy.

Step 4: Final Vote

  • Once the amendment process is completed, the final version of the bill is given a “third reading” by the chamber. The leadership of the majority party typically determines which bills are given consideration on the floor.

  • At the conclusion of this reading, members are given a window of time to cast their votes for or against the bill.

  • If a majority of lawmakers oppose the legislation, the measure is not adopted and the process reaches its conclusion.

  • If the bill receives the support of a majority (sometimes a ⅔ majority is required), the legislation is sent to the other chamber of the legislature.

Step 5: Next Steps

  • Once the bill is transmitted to the other chamber, the same steps outlined above happen on the other side of the building.

  • If the other chamber passes the bill, a conference committee is convened to reconcile any differences between the two chambers’ versions of the bill.

  • This new revised version of the bill is then referred to both chambers for a final vote.

  • If passed, the bill is sent to the governor’s office for their veto or signature.

Step 6: The Governor

  • Once a bill is received by the governor’s office, they have a limited amount of time to decide what to do with the legislation.

  • A governor is empowered to sign the bill (making it a law), veto it (send it back to the legislature), or allow it to become law without their signature (pocket veto).

  • If the governor vetoes the bill, it is sent back to the legislature, where lawmakers have the opportunity to override the governor’s rejection of the legislation by voting again on the bill. If the bill is once again approved with a veto-proof majority, the veto is overridden.

  • Requirements for a veto override vary from state to state. Some mandate only simple majorities (50%+1), while most require a ⅔ or ⅗ majority.

  • In most states, governors can also veto specific portions of a bill while signing off on the broader legislation. This is known as a line-item veto. 44 states and DC give their executives this power. Only Indiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Vermont forbid this practice.

Keep reading about how to contact your legislators