Governors and State Legislatures

THE FUNCTIONS OF STATE LEGISLATURES

State legislatures serve three primary functions. They perform a lawmaking function by researching, writing, and passing legislation. Members represent their districts and work to meet requests for help from citizens within it. Finally, legislatures perform an oversight function for the executive branch.

All state representatives and senators serve on committees that examine, research, investigate, and vote on legislation that relates to the committee’s purpose, such as agriculture, transportation, or education. The number of bills introduced in any given session varies. Some state legislatures have more restrictive rules concerning the number of bills any one member can sponsor. Legislators get ideas for bills from lobbyists of various types of interest groups, ranging from corporate groups to labor unions to advocacy organizations. Ideas for bills also come from laws passed in other state legislatures, from policy that diffuses from the federal government, from constituents or citizens in the officeholder’s district who approach them with problems they would like to see addressed with new laws, and from their own personal policy agenda, which they brought to office with them. Finally, as we explored previously, legislators also work with the governor’s agenda in the course of each legislative session, and they must pass a budget for their state either every year or every two years.

Most bills die in committee and never receive a second or third reading on the floor of the legislature. Lawmaking requires frequent consensus, not just among the legislators in a given house but also between the two chambers. In order for a bill to become law, it must pass through both the state house and the state senate in identical form before going to the governor’s desk for final signature.

Besides generating public policy, state legislatures try to represent the interests of their constituents. Edmund Burke was a political philosopher who theorized that representatives are either delegates or trustees.Edmund Burke. 1969. “The English Constitutional System.” In Representation. Hanna Pitkin. New York: Atherton Press. A delegate legislator represents the will of those who elected him or her to office and acts in their expressed interest, even when it goes against personal belief about what is ultimately in the constituency’s best interest. On the other hand, trustees believe they were elected to exercise their own judgment and know best because they have the time and expertise to study and understand an issue. Thus, a trustee will be willing to vote against the desire of the constituency so long as he or she believes it is in the people’s best interest. A trustee will also be more likely to vote his or her conscience on issues that are personal to him or her, such as on same-sex marriage or abortion rights.

Regardless of whether representatives adopt a delegate or a trustee mentality, they will all see it as their duty to address the concerns and needs of the people they represent. Typically, this will entail helping members in the district who need assistance or have problems with the government they want addressed. For instance, a constituent may write an elected official asking for help dealing with the bureaucracy such as in a decision made by tax commission, requesting a letter of recommendation for acceptance into a military academy, or proposing a piece of legislation the member can help turn into a law.

Legislators also try to bring particularized benefits back to their district. These benefits might include money that can be spent on infrastructure improvements or grants for research. Finally, members will accept requests from local government officials or other constituents to attend parades, ribbon-cutting ceremonies, or other celebratory events within their district (Figure). They will also work with teachers and faculty to visit classes or meet with students on field trips to the state capitol.

An image of Mitch Landrieu standing in the middle of a group of people who are playing various instruments. A streetcar is in the background.
To celebrate the opening of the new Loyola Avenue streetcar line, the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, marched with the St. Augustine “Marching 100” on January 28, 2013. (credit: U.S. Department of Transportation)

The last primary function of state legislators is to oversee the bureaucracy’s implementation of public policy, ensuring it occurs in the manner the legislature intended. State legislatures may request that agency heads provide testimony about spending in hearings, or they may investigate particular bureaucratic agencies to ensure that funds are being disbursed as desired.Ohio Legislative Service Commission. 2015–2016. “Legislative Oversight.” In A Guidebook for Ohio Legislators, 14th ed. Columbus, OH: Ohio Legislative Service Commission. Since legislators have many other responsibilities and some meet for only a few months each year, they may wait to investigate until a constituent or lobbyist brings a problem to their attention.