Governors and State Legislatures

THE COMPOSITION OF STATE LEGISLATURES

In most states, the legislative function is divided between two bodies: a state house and a state senate. The only exception is Nebraska, which has a unicameral state senate of forty-nine members. State legislatures vary a great deal in terms of the number of legislators in the house and senate, the range of diversity across the membership, the partisan composition of the chamber relative to the governor’s affiliation, and the degree of legislative professionalism. This variation can lead to differences in the type of policies passed and the amount of power legislatures wield relative to that of the governor.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at forty members, Alaska’s is the smallest state (or lower) house, while New Hampshire’s is the largest at four hundred. State senates range in size from twenty members in Alaska to sixty-seven members in Minnesota. The size of the institution can have consequences for the number of citizens each member represents; larger bodies have a smaller legislator-to-constituent ratio (assuming even populations). Larger institutions can also complicate legislative business because reaching consensus is more difficult with more participants.National Conference of State Legislatures. 11 March 2013. “Number of Legislators and Length of Terms in Years,” http://www.ncsl.org/research/about-state-legislatures/number-of-legislators-and-length-of-terms.aspx.

The term length in the state house is frequently two years, while in the state senate it is more commonly four years. These differences have consequences, too, because representatives in the state house, with the next election always right around the corner, will need to focus on their reelection campaigns more frequently than senators. On the other hand, state senators may have more time to focus on public policy and become policy generalists because they each must serve on multiple committees due to their smaller numbers.

Link to learning graphic

The number of legislators and term length varies by state.

In 2015, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, women made up 24.3 percent of the nation’s state legislators. However, the number varies a great deal across states (Figure). For instance, in Colorado and Vermont, women account for just over 40 percent of the state legislative membership. However, they make up less than 15 percent of the legislatures in Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming.National Conference of State Legislatures. 4 September 2015. “Women in State Legislatures for 2015,” http://www.ncsl.org/legislators-staff/legislators/womens-legislative-network/women-in-state-legislatures-for-2015.aspx.

A map of the United States titled “Percentage of Women in State Legislature, but State, 2015”. Colorado and Vermont are marked 40-49%. Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Montana, Minnesota, Illinois, Maryland, DC, and New Jersey are marked 30-39%. California, Idaho, Alaska, Hawaii, New Mexico, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine are marked 20-29%. Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania are marked 10-19%.
In 2015, only one-quarter of state legislators across the United States were women. However, the percentage of women in state legislature varies greatly from state to state.

Data on minority representatives is more difficult to obtain, but 2009 estimates from the National Conference of State Legislatures paired with census estimates from 2010 show that African Americans and Latinos are both underrepresented in state government relative to their percentage of the population. In 2009, African Americans made up approximately 9 percent of state legislators, compared to the 13 percent of the population they constitute nationwide. On the other hand, Latino representatives made up approximately 3 percent of state legislators relative to their 14 percent of the total population in the United States.National Conference of State Legislatures. 10 January 2008. “African-American Legislators 2009,” http://www.ncsl.org/research/about-state-legislatures/african-american-legislators-in-2009.aspx; “2009 Latino Legislators.” http://www.ncsl.org/research/about-state-legislatures/latino-legislators-overview.aspx (March 14, 2016). The proportion of Latinos in the legislature is highest in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas, while the proportion of African Americans is highest in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi.

Scholars in political science have spent a great deal of time researching the impact of women and minorities on the legislative process and on voter participation and trust. Some research demonstrates that female and minority representatives are more likely to advocate for policies that are of interest to or will benefit minorities, women, and children.Chris T. Owens. 2005. “Black Substantive Representation in State Legislatures from 1971–1999,” Social Science Quarterly 84, No. 5: 779–791; Robert R. Preuhs. 2005. “Descriptive Representation, Legislative Leadership, and Direct Democracy: Latino Influence on English Only Laws in the States, 1984–2002,” State Politics and Policy Quarterly 5, No. 3: 203–224; Sue Thomas. 1991. “The Impact of Women on State Legislative Policies.” The Journal of Politics 53, No. 4: 958–976. Other research suggests that the presence of African American and Latino representatives increases voter turnout by these groups.Rene Rocha, Caroline Tolbert, Daniel Bowen, and Christopher Clark. 2010. “Race and Turnout: Does Descriptive Representation in State Legislatures Increase Minority Voting?” Political Research Quarterly 63, No. 4: 890–907. Thus, increased diversity in state legislatures can have consequences for voter engagement and for the type of legislation pursued and passed within these bodies.

Link to learning graphic

You can compare the numbers and percentages of women in state legislature, state by state.

You can also compare the numbers and percentages of African American representatives.

Similar information about Latino representation in state legislatures is also available.

In 2014, twenty-six states had Republican majorities in the state house and senate, while in twenty states Democratic majorities were the norm. In just four states, party control was split so that the Democratic Party maintained control of one house while the Republican Party maintained control of the other.“2014 Legislative Partisan Composition,” http://www.ncsl.org/portals/1/ImageLibrary/WebImages/Elections/2014_Leg_Party_Control_map.gif (March 14, 2016). Figure illustrates the partisan composition across the United States. Note that states in New England and the West Coast are more likely to be unified behind the Democratic Party, while Republicans control legislatures throughout the South and in large parts of the Midwest. This alignment largely reflects differing political ideologies, with the more liberal, urban areas of the country leaning Democratic while the more conservative, rural areas are Republican.

A map of the United States titled “Legislative Control of State House and Senate by State, 2015”. Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire are marked Republican. Oregon, California, Hawaii, Illinois, DC, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Vermont are marked Democrat. Washington, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia, New York, and Maine are marked Split. Nebraska is marked Unicameral.
This map illustrates which party is in control of the house and senate within each state. When one party controls the senate and another party controls the house, the partisan composition is split. Nebraska is white because the state has nonpartisan elections and only one chamber (senate).

Like diversity, party composition has consequences for policymaking. Governors who are not from the same party as the one controlling the legislature can find it more difficult to achieve their agenda. This governing circumstance is popularly referred to as divided government. In a time of divided government, a governor may have to work harder to build relationships and to broker consensus. In addition, when state party control is divided between the legislative and executive branches, the governor may find that legislators are more likely to muster the numbers to overturn at least some of their vetoes. In contrast, when the governor’s own party controls the legislature—a situation known as unified government—conventional wisdom suggests that they will have a smoother and more productive relationship with the legislature.

Party composition also matters for the overall legislative agenda. The party in power will elect party members to the top leadership posts in the state house and senate, and it will determine who sits on each of the committees. Committees are chaired by members of the majority party, and the composition of these committees is skewed toward members affiliated with the party in power. This gives the majority party an advantage in meeting its policy objectives and relegates the minority party to the position of obstructionists. In addition, while Republicans and Democrats are both concerned about education, health care, transportation, and other major policy areas, the two parties have different philosophies about what is in the best interest of their citizens and where funds should be allocated to meet those needs. The result is vastly different approaches to handling pressing public policy problems across the states.

As a whole, state legislatures have become progressively more professional. Political scientist Peverill Squire, at several points throughout his career, has measured the degree of state legislative professionalism with a ranking across the fifty states.Peverill Squire. 2007. “Measuring State Legislative Professionalism: The Squire Index Revisited.” State Politics & Policy Quarterly 7, No. 2: 211–227. Legislative professionalism is assessed according to three key factors: state legislators’ salary, the length of time they are in session, and the number of staff at their disposal. Members of professional or full-time legislatures tend to consider legislative service their full-time occupation, and they are paid enough not to require a second occupation. They also have larger staffs to assist with their work, and they tend to be in session for much of the year. On the other end of the spectrum are citizen, or part-time, legislatures. Representatives and senators in these legislatures do not enjoy the same perks as their counterparts in professional legislatures. Generally, salary is much lower and so is staff assistance. Members typically need to seek outside employment to supplement their income from legislative work, and the legislature will meet for only a brief period of time during the year.

Between these two extremes are hybrid legislatures. Their members are compensated at a higher rate than in citizen legislatures, but they are still likely to need outside employment to make an income equal to what they were making prior to taking office. These representatives and senators will have some staff assistance but not as much as in a professional legislature. Finally, members in hybrid legislatures will not consider their service to constitute a full-time occupation, but they will spend more than part of their time conducting legislative business. As Figure shows, California, New York, and Pennsylvania are home to some of the most professional legislatures in the country. On the other hand, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Wyoming, and South Dakota are among the states that rank lowest on legislative professionalism.National Conference of State Legislatures. 1 June 2014. “Table 2. Average Job Time, Compensation and Staff Size by Category of Legislature,” http://www.ncsl.org/research/about-state-legislatures/full-and-part-time-legislatures.aspx#average.

A map of the United States titled “Level of Professionalism Within State Legislatures, 2008”. California, Pennsylvania, and New York are marked “Full-time, high salary, large staff”. Alaska, Florida, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Massachusetts, are marked “Full-time, moderately high salary, moderately large staff”. Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginal, DC, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Hawaii are marked “Hybrid”. Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Kansas, Mississippi, Georgia, West Virginia, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Maine are marked “Part-time, moderately low salary, moderately small staff”. Montana, Wyoming, Utah, North Dakota, South Dakota, and New Hampshire are marked “Part-time, low salary, low staff”.
This map illustrates the degree of professionalism within state legislatures. States in purple and green tend to meet full-time and have larger staff and salaries, while the opposite conditions exist in states colored in orange and red. States in blue fall somewhere in the middle of these conditions.

Like the other indicators discussed above, legislative professionalism also affects the business of state legislatures. In professional legislatures, elections tend to be more competitive, and the cost of running for a seat is higher because the benefits of being elected are greater. This makes these seats more attractive, and candidates will tend not to run unless they perceive themselves as well qualified. Since the benefits are more generous, elected officials will tend to stay in office longer and develop more policy expertise as a result. This experience can give professional legislatures an edge when dealing with the governor, because they are likely to be in session for about the same amount of time per year as the governor and have the necessary staff to assist them with researching and writing public policy.Peverill, “Measuring State Legislative Professionalism: The Squire Index Revisited.”

Link to learning graphic

The legislative pay varies across states.

Compare the size of legislative staffs across states for the years 1979, 1988, 1996, 2003, and 2009.