What's at Stake in Your Statehouse

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
10 min read
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Congress grabs much of the spotlight in political news coverage, and there are good reasons for that. From confirming Supreme Court justices to passing the federal budget, it considers hugely important matters. But the Senate and House of Representatives aren't the only elected bodies in the US making big decisions. Legislatures in the 50 states tackle issues that directly affect your life, often considering even more critical topics than what comes out of Washington, DC. 

Citizen Now

Remember that under the Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution, powers not delegated to Congress are reserved to the states. Legislatures determine tax rates, decide how and when you can vote, establish family and criminal law, make zoning and workplace regulations, choose presidential electors and a lot more. They also regularly delve into hotly contentious issues like abortion access, LGBTQ equality and educational standards. And whatever they're considering, legislatures typically pass more laws and with more fervor than Congress can ever muster (one reason they move faster is that the filibuster is rare at the state level).

But just as the 50 states vary widely in culture, geography and history, the 50 legislatures differ sharply from each other in their structure, schedule and scope. From Alaska to Florida and everywhere in between, here's an overview of the state legislatures and what you need to know about how they operate. 

Looking up at the interior of the California State Capitol rotunda

The rotunda of the California State Capitol in Sacramento.

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Who are my state reps?

You can find your state representatives either through your legislature's website or through a third-party group like Common Cause. And it's important you do so. You can keep tabs on how your members vote, and you can contact them when you have something to say. Not only that, but politicians often use a state legislative position as a launching pad for higher office, whether it's the governor's mansion, Congress or even (eventually) the White House.

When they meet and how often

All state legislatures hold annual sessions, with four exceptions. Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Texas, the nation's second most populous state, with 29.1 million residents, meet only in odd-numbered years.

When legislatures do meet, the session length varies widely across the map. Thirty-nine states set a fixed length, usually through the state constitution. That means they must adjourn either after a certain length of time, like 30 calendar days in New Mexico in 2022, or on a specific date. But whatever the method, most states in this group commence their sessions in early January, similar to the US Congress, and wrap up by June.

Exceptions abound, though. Oklahoma, Louisiana and Connecticut (to name a few) can start as late as February or March. Lawmakers in California and Massachusetts may meet as late as November depending on the year.

The remaining states, including Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, do not have fixed length, instead meeting periodically throughout the year.

California State Assembly meeting chamber

The green color of the California State Assembly Meeting Chamber is based on the UK's House of Commons.

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But then are special sessions

Outside of the regular sessions, legislatures may meet for special or extraordinary sessions. They're held for a variety of reasons, such as the decennial redistricting of state and federal legislative boundaries, settling the state budget or finishing outstanding business left over from when the regular session ended. Special sessions may also convene to address a specific issue, such as in 2013 when the Hawaii legislature met to debate, and eventually legalize, marriage equality in the Aloha State.

In 36 states, either the governor or the legislature itself can convene a special session. But in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas and Vermont only the governor may call one.

California State Senate meeting chamber

The Senate's red is based on the UK's House of Lords.

James Martin/CNET

A full-time job?

While being a member of Congress is a full-time job, in most states being a legislator is not. And here again it can get complicated. The National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan advocacy group that represents state and territorial legislatures at the federal level, has a few definitions.

In "green" states, the NCSL says, lawmakers earn enough (an average of $82,000 per year) so that they may not need outside employment. They typically have a large staff, as well, and spend enough of their time (at least 84%) on legislative activities, whether it's in session or in committee work at the state capital, constituent services in their home districts or campaigning. States in the group either have large populations, their members meet for longer periods or their legislative districts are large or geographically dispersed. Green states include Alaska, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Members in "gold" states spend half of their time on legislative duties and need another job since their pay is quite low (an average of $18,000 per year). Most of the states in this group are rural or sparsely populated. The list includes Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming. These states are said to have "citizen legislatures."

If your state isn't listed above, it's in the NCSL's hybrid "gray" group. Representatives spend about 75% of their time on the job and make an average of $41,100 per year, which usually isn't enough to live off, depending on the person. They employ more staff than in gold states, but less than in green states.

The Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge

The Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge is the tallest in the country. It's also one of the few state capitols without a dome.

Louisiana Office of Tourism

How much they're paid

This isn't an easy topic to boil down to a few paragraphs, so I'll stick to the highlights (thank you, again, NCSL).

Every state but New Mexico pays their lawmakers a salary. Most are paid on an annual basis, but a few, including Kansas, Nevada, Vermont and North Dakota, pay by the month, week or each day the legislature meets. Maine takes a different route by paying a fixed amount for the entire session. Of the states with a salary, California pays the most ($115,000 per year), and New Hampshire pays the least ($100 per year).

Legislators in all states are compensated for travel expenses to and from their districts and most can claim a per diem for meals and lodging for when staying in the state capitol. Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Rhode Island do not pay a per diem. All states but Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Rhode Islands, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, and West Virginia allocate additional money for hiring a staff and maintaining office space.

Nebraska State Legislature meeting chamber

Nebraska's unicameral state legislature meets in this chamber in the capitol in Lincoln. 

Nebraska State Legislature

How many members

Nebraska has the smallest legislature, with just 49 members. But Nebraska is also the only state with a unicameral legislature, meaning that it has only one house (an arrangement common in legislative assemblies of Canadian provinces). Nebraska dissolved its lower chamber, the House of Representatives, in 1937. All members are called "senators."

The smallest bicameral legislature is Alaska, with 40 members in the House of Representatives and 20 in the Senate. The largest legislature is little New Hampshire. With only 1.38 million residents, the country's 41st most populous state, it elects 24 senators and 400 representatives. The lower house is the third largest legislative body in the world after the 435-member US House of Representatives and 650-member UK House of Commons. Minnesota's legislature has 201 members, but it also has the country's largest upper house with 67 senators.

Though it's the most populous state, with 39.5 million people, California's legislature ranks only 35th in size, with 80 members in the Assembly and 40 in the Senate. That means the Golden State's lawmakers also represent the most people according to Ballotpedia. California's senators represent an average of 988,456 constituents, each while assembly members represent an average of 494,228 each.

Not surprisingly, New Hampshire's residents get the most say in their lower house. Each representative speaks for just 3,444 people. But it's North Dakota's senators that represent the fewest people with an average of 16,576 constituents each.

While the majority of states elect one member per legislative district for both houses, four states -- Washington, Arizona, South Dakota and New Jersey -- use multimember districts.

The Texas State Capitol in Austin

The Texas State Capitol is the largest in the country. Its dome is higher than the US Capitol.

Texas State Preservation Board

Term length and limits

Like the US House of Representatives, most states elect their lower-house members to two-year terms. Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland and Mississippi stand out from the pack by having four-year terms.

Most state senators are elected for four-year terms. The exceptions are Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Vermont, which have two-year terms.

Just 15 states set term limits, which typically are between eight and 12 years. They are Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Ohio and South Dakota. 

The Vermont State Capitol in Montpelier

Vermont's state capitol is one of the nation's smallest.

DeAgostini/Getty Images

Who's in your statehouse?

Currently the Republican Party controls both houses in 30 states, and the Democratic Party has the majority in both houses of 17 states. In Minnesota and Virginia, party control is split between the two chambers. Though Nebraska's legislature is officially nonpartisan, senators belonging to the Republican party make up the majority there. 

The partisan gap is narrower, though, when you look at the total number of legislators in the country. Of 7,383 state lawmakers nationwide 54% are Republicans, 45% are Democrats and the rest are either independent or belong to another political party. 

Men still dominate statehouses nationwide, with women making up 31% of legislators. Nevada is the only state with a majority woman legislature (61%), while West Virginia has the fewest women members (12%). 

What's in a name?

The official name of the legislative branch in most states is either the State Legislature or the General Assembly. Massachusetts and New Hampshire go old school by calling their bodies the General Court, a term left over from the colonial period. 

The lower house in most states is called the House of Representatives. California, Nevada, New Jersey and New York call their lower houses the State Assembly, while Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia use the term House of Delegates.

The Maryland State House in Annapolis

Built in 1772, the Maryland State House in Annapolis is the oldest state capitol in continuous use.

Visit Annapolis

Places where they meet

Though domes crown the majority of the 50 state capitols, the buildings' architectural styles are as varied as the states they represent. A few, such as Arkansas, California and Colorado, have neoclassical designs like the US Capitol, but other styles include French Renaissance (Kansas), Beaux-Arts (Kentucky), Italian Renaissance (Texas), Greek Revival (Vermont) and Victorian Gothic (Connecticut). Maryland's Georgian State House stands out by having a tower with an octagonal dome. 

Delaware's colonial revival Legislative Hall occupies sort of a middle ground by being topped with a cupola tower with a small dome at its very tip. Likewise, Nebraska's State Capitol, which is a mix of Art Deco, Neo-Byzantine and Gothic Revival styles, has a 400-foot office tower capped by a dome and a statue called the Sower

The Hawaii State Capitol in Honolulu

The architecture of the Hawaii State Capitol symbolizes everything from the palm trees to the Pacific Ocean.

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The legislatures of Alaska, Hawaii, Louisiana, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, and Virginia do not meet under domes. Tennessee, Oregon and Ohio almost get there with cupolas that are sort of like domes that have been smashed flat. Florida, Louisiana and North Dakota's capitols are topped by tall towers similar to Nebraska – North Dakota's Art Deco capitol is even called "The Skyscraper on the Prairie." 

New York's Romanesque State Capitol could be the palatial home of a Gilded Age robber baron. Thomas Jefferson designed Virginia's Palladian State Capitol after the Maison carrée, a Roman temple in Nîmes, France. Compare them with Alaska's State Capitol, which could be mistaken for the country's prettiest high school. 

The New Mexico State Capitol in Santa Fe

New Mexico's state capitol is called "The Roundhouse" for good reason.

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Hawaii and New Mexico choose highly symbolic architecture. The Bauhaus-influenced Hawaii State Capitol is surrounded by a reflecting pool, which represents the Pacific Ocean. The columns symbolize palm trees, and the cone-shaped legislative chambers resemble the volcanoes that formed the Hawaiian islands. New Mexico has the only round state capitol. From the air it's designed to resemble the Zia sun symbol, which also adorns the state flag

Then there are the states that decided newer was better. Since World War II, lawmakers in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Nevada and North Carolina moved from their original (domed) state capitols into modern and relatively bland legislative buildings. The historic buildings now serve as museums or, in Nevada's case, the office of the governor. 

Other state capitol facts:

The Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico in San Juan

The Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico is the largest territorial legislature.

Getty Images

Don't forget the territories 

The nation's territories -- Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands -- also have legislative bodies. A few facts to note:  

  • The unicameral Council of the District of Columbia is the smallest body, with 13 members. Created in 1973 as part of the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, it meets all year, functioning like a cross between a city government and a state legislature. The US Constitution gives Congress, however, the power to overrule any legislation the council passes. Congress may also make its own laws for Washington, DC or suspend the council completely.
  • The Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico (Asamblea Legislativa de Puerto Rico), the American Samoa Fono and the Northern Mariana Islands Commonwealth Legislature are bicameral. The Legislature of Guam (Liheslaturan Guåhan) and the Legislature of the US Virgin Islands are unicameral. 
  • American Samoa's legislature is the only territorial legislature that's nonpartisan.
  • Puerto Rico follows a unique political party system. The two largest parties are the Popular Democratic Party (Partido Popular Democrático), which advocates for the island's current commonwealth status, and the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (Partido Nuevo Progresista). 
  • Puerto Rico also has the largest territorial legislature, with 78 members, and it's the only one to meet in a domed building.
  • The legislatures of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa and the US Virgin Islands have between 15 and 39 members.