Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
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.
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.
The Nebraska state legislature is unique in that it has only one house, whereas all other states have two. The unicameral legislature also has the lowest number of seats of any state legislature at 49. Each representative represents approximately 37,000 Nebraskan citizens, and all are members of multiple of the legislature's 14 standing committees.
The Michigan state legislature is bicameral, with both a state senate and a house of representatives. The Senate sits with 38 members, while the House sits with 110. The legislature convenes in Lansing, in the center of the state's Lower Peninsula. The population each representative represents varies wildly in the state, with state senators representing anywhere from 212,000 to 263,000 Michiganders, while representatives in the House represent between 77,000 and 91,000 people.
Oklahoma also has a bicameral state legislature, with a senate having 48 seats and a house of representatives with 101. The Oklahoma state legislature sits in the state capital, Oklahoma City. It has dozens of standing and conference committees, many instituted in just the past couple decades, such as the Conference Committees on States' Rights and Government Modernization. Oklahoma limits the amount of time its representatives can sit in the state legislature to 12 years.
- State legislatures are convened in all fifty states for the purpose of administering state government.
- 49 of the 50 states have a bicameral legislature; Nebraska has only one house and is unicameral.
- State legislatures' primary responsibility is to design, draft, and implement law in each state.
- Bills and laws have to pass through committees in each legislature.
- Legislature size, structure, and procedure vary greatly from state to state.
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