Stateline Story

Legislatures Vary in Session Length

  • January 09, 2003
  • By Kathleen Murphy

Forty-two of the state legislatures will convene by January 21, and all 50 will be in session in 2003.

Lawmakers in eleven states -- Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Virginia began meeting Wednesday (1/8).

But session length varies. Virginia and Utah are scheduled to hold the shortest sessions about six weeks. Legislators in many states disagree on whether short is sweet.

"Some think it helps streamline issues, others think it doesn't give enough time to truly understand the issues," said Joan Barilla of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The longest sessions will be held in Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Those legislatures meet year-round.

The annual flurry of state legislative activity is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the early 1960s, only 19 state legislatures met annually. The remaining 31 held regular sessions every other year. By the mid-1970s, the number of states meeting annually grew from 19 to 41.

Today, 44 state legislatures meet annually. The remaining six states--Arkansas, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon and Texas--hold session every other year.

As more legislatures began to meet annually, more restrictions were placed on session length.

Some lawmakers say more frequent, shorter sessions are good because it cuts down on the number of laws added to the statute books. They say it leaves more time to strengthen relations with constituents, mend political fences and campaign for re-election.

Others say longer sessions raise the status of the legislature, thereby helping to check power of the executive branch. Proponents of longer sessions say they also enable states to respond more rapidly to new federal laws requiring state participation and reduce the need for frequently chaotic special sessions.

Virginia delegates, who are scheduled to adjourn in mid-February, have some 3,000 bills to plough through between now and then.

But Virginia Minority Leader Del. Frank Hall (D-Richmond) proposed last year that the state's short session be cut further. Hall was unsuccessful, but says he still believes more capable people would be willing to serve in the part-time legislature if the session was abbreviated further. Extended sessions cost the government $70,000 per day, Hall said.

Former Georgia House Speaker Thomas Murphy, (D) -- the longest-serving state house speaker in the nation until he was defeated for reelection in 2002-- agrees shorter sessions are better.

"If you didn't have a limited period, you wouldn't have anybody to serve," he said

A full-time legislature would also mean larger salaries and higher costs all around, said Murphy, an attorney first elected to the General Assembly in 1961.

North Carolina, which meets about half the year, backed off limiting its legislative calendar last year. Its 2003 session is scheduled to start Jan. 29 and conclude in early July.

An Associated Press survey of North Carolina legislators recently found that 80 percent of incoming senators and 48 percent of House members still favor limiting legislative sessions. Only a few -- six in the House and four in Senate -- supported a move to a full-time legislature, with full-time pay and scheduled recesses during the year.

Wisconsin Democratic Assembly Leader Spencer Black said that even though his state legislature meets year round, the calendar adopted by members effectively restricts floor activity. Black estimates the assembly is in session about one week per month, with plenty of time allotted for study committees.

"I think it works well in that the legislators tend to be fairly well-educated on issues," Black said. However he favors reducing the number of legislators and creating a unicameral (one house) legislature.

North Dakota House Speaker Janet Wentz, R-Minot, said the legislature's custom of meeting for 80 days in odd-numbered years makes budgeting tough because revenues must be predicted 2-1/2 years into the future. But the session's time limit forces legislators to get the job done, Wentz said.

"We pride ourselves in being a citizen legislature," Wentz said. "When we adjourn and go back home, we have to live with the laws that we passed. It's a reality check."