The Thing to Know About State Legislatures

Old-fashioned red clock on a light blue background.
Photo by Malvestida / Unsplash

Budgets, they say, are moral documents. Governments spend on what they - ideally we citizens - value.

The same is not said about calendars. But it's an interesting idea to noddle on: How governments spend their time is a reflection of what matters most to them.

And that lands us smack dab on the super juicy topic of part-time state legislatures!

America is a democracy around-the-clock, but these legislatures, also known as citizen legislatures, are up and running only some of the clock. I've got a part-time legislature up here in Maine, maybe you do, too - find out.

Let's wade into what this means for us and good policy change.

Light on Calendars
Part-time legislatures each draw up their calendars differently. Here in the Pine Tree State, the legislature meets January-June on odd-numbered years, January-April even-numbered years. Make a beeline across the country and Oregon is in 160 days odd-numbered years and 35 days in even-numbered years. Smack in the middle between the two, North Dakota meets only in odd-numbered years for no more than 80 days.

You can probably connect the dots here, but odd-numbered years are the year after a federal election. A lot of legislatures front-end their workload to have a longer session (or their only session) immediately following an election.

So you want to get a bill across the finish line in April of an even-numbered year in North Dakota. You can build coalitions, get coffees with legislators and relevant government agency staff. But you can't move a legislative inch until the legislature is back in session – unless the governor calls a special session.

If this sounds like pretty weak sauce, let's throw a wrench in here: more calendar time does not necessarily mean more productivity. (Congress, a full-time legislature, and "Getting It Done" are rarely used in the same sentence.) Many legislatures punt contentious stuff until the end of the legislative session when negotiating power is highest. Politics at its finest.

So if you want to reach out to your legislator, a great time to do it is early in session when the calendar is lighter. It's harder to get their attention as the legislature gets deeper into session. Better yet, build a relationship with them when the legislature isn't in session, then make your ask soon after the legislature convenes.

Light on Salary
Part-time legislatures are populated by part-time legislators who are retired or have other gigs. In Maine, our legislators include social workers and real estate agents, lobstermen, an antique dealer, a former NASCAR driver.

For legislators who aren't self-employed, they need real work flexibility to be at the statehouse during session. To say nothing of doing constituent services, which can happen whether you're in session or not. Plus for some legislators in big states like Texas, Alaska, or Montana, the time it takes to get to the statehouse can gobble up a good chunk of the day.

Legislators don't work just when they're in the statehouse. There are constituent calls, casework, caucus meetings, bill research. The time commitment varies from legislator to legislator, but those who care are likely logging a lot of uncompensated hours.

So plenty of folks can't afford time-wise to be a legislator.

Most part-time legislators aren't drawing down fat legislative paychecks. In Maine, our legislature has two-year sessions and legislators make $15,417 the first year and $10,999 the second year, a shorter session. Down the road in Connecticut, the salary is $28,000. Over in Tennessee it's $24,316. In New Mexico, they make no salary (though they get a per diem, retirement benefits, and mileage reimbursement). Find out what your state legislators make here.

So plenty of folks can't afford time or money-wise to be a state legislator. You got kiddos, do shift work, hold down a few jobs, rely on public transit, care for an elderly relative, there's no way you can swing this kind of public service. And the absence of these voices can't help but impact the laws a state does or doesn't pass.

Why not beef up those salaries? Most legislatures are responsible for raising their own salaries and most see it as a political dumpster fire. Except, perhaps, for our bold, forward-thinking compadres in New Jersey (some salty language in this link).

Light on Staff
Part-time legislators also have limited staffing. Legislators in leadership - House Speaker, Senate President, Majority Leader, etc - may have dedicated staff. Some part-time legislators have no personal staff, some share staff with other members, some may only have access to staff when the legislature is in session.

If you email your legislator and don't hear back for a few days, they might be working their other job, looking into your issue, or up to their eyeballs in session. Check the legislative calendar and if they're in session, circle back when they're on recess (usually Mondays and Fridays are good bets). If they aren't in session, circle back in a week or two.

But here's the other piece: the lighter the staff, the more tempting it is for members to rely on lobbyists. Smart lobbyists understand the political landscape and can save legislators time by mapping out sophisticated paths through it. Some lobbyists work for good and just causes. Plenty do not. Regardless, policy driven mostly by lobbyists isn't a shining beacon of democratic health.

But I love that we can reclaim our role in democracy by knowing a bit more about the process and then engaging a bit more in the process.

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