An Overview of State Legislatures


Much like dental schools, if you’ve seen one state legislature—you’ve seen one state legislature.

None are identical; every legislature is unique. They vary in size, name, political composition and operation. Some legislatures are part-time, some are full-time, and some only meet once every two years. Some big states have small legislatures, and some small states have large legislatures. Some state legislatures have full-time staff, while elected officials in other states may answer their own phones. 

While each legislature is unique, they do have similarities, and their differences can be categorized. This section will review some of the most common features and differences among state legislatures. As you continue to grow as an advocate, you may wish to learn more about these differences and how your state is unique.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has put together several resources that can help you learn and better understand their impact on advocacy in your state.


While a handful of legislatures are similar to Congress in the way the function, most are very different. In most states, legislatures meet part-time and have smaller staffs than Congress. In these states, the legislature may meet anywhere from two to six months out of the year, and in four states the legislature only meets once every other year. These bodies are considered citizen legislatures, and members receive part-time pay. Most members have another job outside of the legislature. Because of the short sessions, legislation in these states tends to move very quickly.

Ten states are considered to have full-time legislatures. These states tend to function similarly to Congress, as legislative sessions last longer, and members and their staff are usually well paid. The states with a full-time legislature are Alaska, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Session length tends to vary in these states, and legislation in states with longer sessions tends to move more slowly as the legislative bodies have more time to deliberate. 


While legislative rules and deadlines tend to vary from state to state, this section outlines some of the most common that have an impact on advocacy efforts. These rules and deadlines are used to make the legislative process streamlined and faster.

While deadlines are generally adhered to in states that have them, leadership in a legislative body may be able to use their powers to create exceptions.

This chart
will help you find out if your state uses some or all of these deadlines and when they occur. 


Many states allow bills to be introduced before a session starts. This is known as pre-filing a bill. It is important to pay attention to bills that are pre-filed as they may provide an indication of the issues that will be relevant during session, and it will give you time to prepare a strategy to oppose or support a bill before the hectic pace of session begins.

Bill Introduction Deadlines

This is the last day a member of a legislative body is permitted to introduce legislation. Some states create different deadlines for different types of bills. Bills addressing budget or fiscal issues often have a different deadline from common bills.

Crossover Deadline

This is the last day a chamber may act on a bill that originated in that chamber. If a chamber does not vote to pass a bill by this date, the bill cannot be sent to the second chamber.

Bill Introduction Limits

Many states place a limit on the number of bills a member of a legislative body may introduce. These types of limits may force a legislator to only introduce legislation that address their top legislative priorities.


Some states carryover legislation from one year to the next, meaning legislation that did not pass during the first year of a legislative session will be alive when the legislature reconvenes the next year. Most states that have this rule carryover legislation from years ending in an odd number to years ending in an even number. Only two states—New Jersey and Virginia—carryover legislation from even years to odd years.

Restrictions on Legislative Days

Some states require a legislature to adjourn by a specific calendar date, while others place a limit on the number of days a legislative body is allowed to meet in a calendar year. This chart will help you learn about these restrictions in your state.


Fifteen states impose term limits on members of their legislature.

There are two distinct types of term limits imposed by these states:

  1. Consecutive term limits restrict the consecutive number of years a member can be in one chamber of the legislature. In these states, it is not unusual to see a member of the legislature bounce between chambers after reaching the consecutive term limit.
  2. Lifetime term limits prohibit a member from running for an office they’ve held after they have served a specified number of years. 

Some studies have found that lifetime limits tend to increase turnover and can limit institutional knowledge of members. Without institutional knowledge built from years serving in a legislature, the influence of long-term staff and advocates tends to increase as legislators often turn to staff and advocates for information.


Chamber leadership, committee chairs and governors set the agenda of legislative bodies. 

Presiding officers
(usually known as the President of the Senate or Speaker of the House/Assembly) are the most powerful members of a legislative body. These members decide when and which bills will be brought to the floor for consideration and, in many states, also determine committee assignments for bills after introduction. These powers give presiding officers the ability to give legislation an easy or difficult path to passage. If a presiding officer supports legislation, they can assign it to a committee likely to pass the bill and can also call a bill to the floor for a vote during an opportune moment. On the other hand, if they oppose a bill, they can kill the bill by assigning it to a committee with a chairperson who is unlikely to support passage of the bill, or they can refuse to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.   

After a bill has been assigned to a committee, committee chairs control the next stage. In all states, committee chairs decide when legislation will be considered, and in some states, they have the power to kill a bill by refusing to schedule it for a vote. Some states require a committee vote for all bills assigned to a committee, but the power to determine when a bill is heard and voted on can still be significant in states with legislative deadlines.

While governors are not members of a legislature, they often use their powers to push bills through the legislative process. Governors not only have the advantage of being the most recognizable politician in the state, they also hold veto power over the legislature. Additionally, as a state’s chief executive, governors are relied upon to make recommendations for a state’s budget and possess considerable power of state funding. In some states, governors also have “line-item” veto power, which gives them the ability to reduce spending on particular issues within appropriations bills.