There’s usually some mild panic, as images of grade-school civics class and School House Rock bubble up. Then, the search for resources begins, with the realization that there’s a heavy learning process ahead.
For those new to state legislation, CQ Roll Call has compiled a special report that explains how state legislatures work, how bills are considered and how you can begin tracking legislation. You can download it now, free of charge.
Understanding the Process
The first thing to do is to understand how bills become laws. Does it really work the way most of us were taught in school or by Saturday-morning cartoons? Yes. And no. We were taught the basics in school, and they generally hold true, both at the state and federal level. They describe a system free of politics and outside influence in which bills are introduced, debated in committee, passed on the floor of both chambers and then signed by the executive branch. Unfortunately, we were left to learn the details and complexities on our own, and they change the picture in ways both large and small.
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The system in most states roughly models the federal system, at least in terms of the broad strokes. But the analogy between Congress and state legislatures only goes so far. Every state operates under a different set of rules and procedures, some of which you will need to learn in order to track effectively.
State Versus Federal
For example, members of Congress are considered full-time legislators, and they cannot hold other employment. These lawmakers do their business in a two-year session, which is punctuated by a great many breaks and recesses. Legislative leaders in the House and Senate control the calendar, which is subject to change throughout the year.
In the states, these things can vary widely. While some states have full-time lawmakers, others have a part-time legislature in which lawmakers serve during session and then return to their professions back home. Some states have lengthy sessions. Others meet for only a few weeks or months. Many states can also have special sessions to deal with specific issues.
The fact is that session time means a great deal in the states, because it dictates how much time lawmakers and the governor have to get business done. A short session often means a compressed timeline — and far faster legislative action. As a rule, states move fast. They have large amounts to do — some of it mandatory — and a small amount of time in which to get it done. The result is a legislative pace that can make Congress look positively glacial.
Learn to Track
Generally speaking, states also get a lot more done. CQ Roll Call’s report on How to Track State Legislation explains the process, including:
- How bills move through the system.
- How the majority can often manipulate the system to its advantage.
- Who writes, sponsors and pushes legislation.
- How outside interests play a role.
- How to track bills using standard and advanced tools