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State Legislature: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:01 Definition & Overview
  • 2:36 Examples
  • 4:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore state legislatures. Consisting of representatives of the people of each state, state legislatures are an important part of each state government.

Definition and Overview

Governing such a huge country with such a diverse population as the United States can be tricky. If the federal government in Washington D.C. tried to micromanage the affairs of each state and local government, there would be no time left to tackle bigger, important issues; and worse, many local interests would surely get lost in the melee.

Fortunately, many of these localized issues are not dealt with in Washington but in each state's own government. An integral part to each state government - indeed where the people of each state are best represented - is the state legislature.

State legislatures are the respective representative bodies for the people of each state. In all states, with the exception of Nebraska, states are made up of two houses (Nebraska only has one): a house of representatives, or general assembly, each with representatives based on a set population, and a senate, which contains a smaller number of representatives but is still usually based on population. This contrasts the federal Senate, in which each state receives two representatives irrespective of population.

The state legislature usually makes up one of the three branches of state government, and both checks and is checked by executive and judicial bodies. The primary responsibility of any state legislature is to design, draft, and vote on bills and laws to govern each state. Bills and laws generally go through several committees prior to being voted on in the entire assembly, through which the bills and laws are changed, amended, or killed altogether. Most representatives are members of committees devoted to certain issues or important interests, such as energy, education, or administering local governments. The number of committees and the issues at hand vary widely from state to state. If bills make it through the committee process, they're usually read and then voted on by the entire body. If a bill or law passes in both bodies (or in Nebraska, one body) the law leaves the state legislature to be decided on by the governor.

While lawmaking is a state legislature's primary duty, there are other special tasks required of state legislatures, though many of these are not regular events. For example, state legislatures are required to ratify amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and two-thirds of state legislatures must ratify a federal amendment before it can be added. Similarly, state legislatures are allowed to amend their own state's constitution as they see fit, and states can also propose federal amendments as well. State legislatures and their members are also generally more in touch with local government and the people of the state, and a representative and his/her team are required to deal with individual and group complaints concerning the government.

Examples

Let's go over some details of a few individual state legislatures to help illustrate the broader definition we just covered. Keep in mind, because there are fifty states, every state legislature is different.

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