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State Legislation 101: A Guide for Employers

Every U.S. state has a legislative body. From this point, the similarities end. The state retains the discretion to determine the specific details of how its government, including the legislative branch, will operate, and these specifics are typically set forth in that state’s constitution.

Thus, just as the political issues affecting one state may be wildly varied from those affecting its neighbor, the political bodies where these issues are debated may also be drastically different. Variation in details such as how the legislative branch will operate, when the legislature will meet, how long the sessions will last, how often they will convene, how many legislators will be in the branch, how long their terms will last, and so forth create individual and unique bodies of law across the country.

This is all well and good for the states as individual states, but it can certainly make keeping up with the legislative process across two or three states a daunting task. While it isn’t possible to cover the full nature of every state’s unique structure, we’ve compiled a primer of some of the general similarities and extraordinary differences among the 50 states.

For the latest updates on state legislation related to employment law, subscribe to the Employers State Law Alert, a monthly newsletter and online searchable database.

One house or two?
Of the 50 states, only Nebraska has a unicameral body, i.e., a body composed of one house rather than two distinct houses. (Washington D.C., Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands also have unicameral legislative assemblies.) The other 49 states each have two divisions — a lower house, which may be called the House of Representatives, House of Delegates, or simply Assembly, and an upper house, or Senate.

Arguments for and against bicameral or unicameral government abound. Some argue that a unicameral government is more efficient, cutting out duplicative review and debate in the second house. Others suggest that a bicameral government is more stable and consistent, and that the additional debate and red tape is necessary to protect citizens from fleeting changes in law. Though whispers of unicameralism have come from movements in other states such as Oklahoma and Idaho, the states continue to favor the bicameral approach.

Year-long, biennial, and special sessions
If you have operations in the state of Texas, you can rest a little easier in 2010. Texas has biennial sessions, or sessions every two years, and there will be no regular session in 2010. Other states with biennial sessions include Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, and Oregon. None of these states will have regular legislative sessions in 2010, though all of these states have the option of calling “special sessions” for specific topics as needed.

Most states started out with biennial legislatures. In fact, in 1940, only four state legislatures actually met on an annual basis. In 2010, 45 states will meet annually, with Arkansas being the most recent state to switch to an annual legislative session beginning in 2010.

And just as the frequency of sessions can vary, so can the length of those sessions. The overwhelming majority of states have a session that starts sometime in January and ends in the late spring or early summer. However, North Carolina’s legislature is still in session and has announced when it will convene in 2010. However, Louisiana’s sessions don’t typically begin until April while New Mexico often wraps up shop in mid-February. Also, eight states (Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) and Washington D.C. meet throughout the year.

Finally, we briefly mentioned special sessions as a way for biennial legislatures to meet on off years of their legislative calendar, but special sessions are not solely reserved to those states. Special or extraordinary sessions are typically called by the state governor to address and resolve a particular issue that may require additional time and attention outside the standard legislative calendar. Special sessions also often arise in matters of emergency or time-sensitivity. Common topics for special sessions include budgetary concerns, educational issues, and health care issues.

State-by-state comparision of 50 employment laws in all 50 states

I’m just a bill — legislative basics
Whether your state’s session goes year-round or every other year, there are a few standard procedures and terms that arise in most states across the nation.

Prefiling bills. The majority of the states allow bills to be prefiled. A prefiled bill is simply one that has been drafted, printed, and made available to the public before the beginning of the session. Then, on the actual first day of the session, the bills will be formally introduced and referred to committee. The benefit of prefiling is that it helps the legislative process move more quickly, allowing review and discussion of these prefiled bills early in the session. Prefiled bills still go through the same series of steps as any other bill, they just get a head start on the drafting process.

Bill drafting. Whether a bill is prefiled or filed during the regular legislative session, the actual drafting of a bill is typically done by a legislative office of bill drafters. The legislator who wishes to propose the bill, or the bill’s sponsor, provides the bill drafters with the facts and objectives of the legislation. The bill drafters then set to work translating those objectives into the appropriate legal terminology for that state. The bill drafters may also be responsible for ensuring that the proposed legislation does not come into conflict with the state constitution, federal law, and other law not specifically intended to be amended by the bill.

The process. When the bill’s sponsor is pleased with the bill that has been drafted, he or she will introduce the bill in the appropriate legislative body. At this point, the bill begins its unique journey through that state’s legislative process. The bill may be referred to one or more subject-matter committees for intensive discussion on the merits and detriments of the legislation, it may be amended numerous times, or it may be tabled or even withdrawn.

In a bicameral legislature, a bill that is proposed in one house of the legislative body may be simultaneously proposed as a “companion bill” in the other house. Any amendments that are made to the bill in one house must then be agreed to or concurred upon by the other house to ensure that each body is on the same page. As amendments are passed and concurred upon, those amendments will be engrossed into the text of the bill. Before passage, that one piece of legislation may be retyped countless times as it undergoes committee scrutiny, legislative floor debate, and any resulting amendments.

The final showdown. When a bill does pass through both bodies of the state legislature (or, in Nebraska, just the one body), then the bill will be “enrolled.” An enrolled bill is not yet law — it’s just the final form as approved by the state legislature. The enrolled bill is the official copy that is delivered to the state governor.

The governor then will have a set period of time for taking action on the bill — some states give three days while others give 60. If the governor fails to act on the bill within the given time, then it may become effective without his or her signature.

If the governor signs the bill, then it becomes adopted, and the bill’s journey typically ends with the Secretary of State. At this point the bill becomes an “Act” and is incorporated into the state’s legal code. However, the governor’s signature on the bill is not the only means for adoption. In the event of a gubernatorial veto, the legislature may attempt to override the veto with a special vote.

For the latest updates on state legislation related to employment law, subscribe to the Employers State Law Alert, a monthly newsletter and online searchable database.