How does Your State Legislature Work?

by Debbie Wuthnow with iVoterGuide

45 states are in session right now. The laws they are passing directly impact your life and the issues you care about. They also shape our country’s values, pulling it in different directions.

Already this year we’ve seen laws discarding the sanctity of life, and others upholding it. We’ve seen raging debates over protecting children from gender mutilation, as well as legislation affecting their education.

State legislatures are responsible for creating these policies. How do they operate? How can you be a godly influence in the process?

The Structure

Most Americans are aware of their U.S. Representative and Senator, but fewer realize that they also have a state representative and senator.

Your state lawmaking body may be called the legislature, General Assembly, Legislative Assembly, or another term. It is interesting to note that the legislatures of the original thirteen states pre-date the Constitution and the first Congress!

Like Congress, every state legislature, with the notable exception of Nebraska, has two chambers, similar to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. They are called the lower and upper chambers, with similar and yet distinct roles.

1. Lower Chamber – House of Representatives, House of Delegates, or Assembly

In the larger of the two chambers, each member serves a smaller portion of the population (your House District or Assembly District) than the Senate. You may refer to him or her as your assemblyman or assemblywoman, delegate, or representative, depending on your state. Members’ terms are two years in most states.

In many states, tax bills originate in the lower chamber. Members may also impeach state officials!

2. Upper Chamber – The Senate

In the smaller of the two chambers, each member serves a larger population known as your Senate District. State senators usually serve for longer terms (just like at the federal level), such as four years.

It can be easy to confuse your state senator with your U.S. Senator, but remember that the latter represents your entire state in Washington, D.C., while your state senator only represents your senate district at your state capitol. Fun history fact: until the 17th Amendment was passed in 1913, state legislators elected the U.S. Senators. Talk about high stakes for these down ballot races!

In some states, the Senate has authority to confirm or reject the governor’s appointments. For example, the Texas Secretary of State is not elected, but appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. It makes you think about the ripple effect of your vote!

The Session

When legislators meet to debate and pass bills, it is called the legislative session. If you know when your session begins and ends, you will know when to watch for issues you care about.

Because legislators may not have time to read every bill, your input through a phone call or email helps educate them on an issue and what people in their district think. They are already hearing from various interest groups and lobbyists. But YOU are the one who will decide whether to vote for them in the next election. 

Committees carry out the bulk of legislating as they debate amendments to bills and hear testimony from interest groups and citizens like yourself. The chair of each committee is influential, and worth contacting as well. Do you know which committees your legislators serve on . . . or lead? If not, visit their official website to find out!

Leadership is also very influential. They are the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate (who is the Lieutenant Governor in some states). They may have authority to refer bills to favorable or unfavorable committees.  

Both Chambers must pass a bill before it can become law. Unlike Congress, some states allow a bill to automatically become law within a certain time period even if the governor chooses not to sign it. And every state allows the legislature to override the governor’s veto with enough votes.

The Ripple Effect

Most voters, when evaluating state candidates, do not realize the extent of their powers and responsibilities. Sadly, many do not vote in elections for state legislators.

Our state legislatures don’t merely pass laws. They enshrine values into law. And as more states follow suit, it changes the culture of our nation.

If your legislature is in session right now, pay attention to what’s going on. Sign up to receive prayer prompts and let your member know you are praying for them. Prayerfully consider which issues you might voice your opinion on.

If you are one of the four states with a regular legislative election this year, watch for an email from us in the coming months. And don’t forget to tell your friends, neighbors, and church family about iVoterGuide!

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