Politics

Some State Legislators Want to Work More, Not Less

Four state legislatures meet every other year instead of annually. Lawmakers in North Dakota and Texas want to leave biennial budgeting in the past.
March 2013

State legislatures that conduct business every other year are already a rare and dwindling breed. Oregon went annual in 2011. Arkansas in 2009. If some lawmakers had their way, no state would have biennial sessions.

North Dakota state Rep. Keith Kempenich is one of those lawmakers. He has introduced legislation that would split North Dakota’s current 80-day biennial session into 40-day sessions every year.

“I’ve never been a big supporter of changing the way we do things,” Kempenich says. But in recent years, he notes, annual sessions would have allowed the state government to respond more quickly to floods and new transportation infrastructure demands brought on by the state’s current oil boom.

Read the March issue of Governing magazine.

More generally, he says, annual legislative meetings would provide a check on the executive branch every year, not just the odd-numbered ones. Kempenich isn’t looking to change the state constitution or add additional business days for the legislature; he just wants to space out when it convenes. Even so, he says the bill’s prospects aren’t good because he doesn’t have widespread support in the Senate.

In the 1960s the majority of states did not meet every year. Today only four do not: Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Texas. Proponents of meeting every other year say that states should limit the length and frequency of sessions to allow politicians time to connect with constituents and maintain normal civic life.

The fear of losing that connection is what Kempenich says is keeping some of his fellow legislators from wanting to meet yearly. “A lot of people fear that we’re going to become full time,” he says. “It’s still a citizen legislature. You’d still have to go out for 10 months … living with what you passed.”

Nevada and Montana actually used to have annual sessions, but their political climates changed. Nevada voters, tired of seeing legislators work beyond their 60-day limit, passed a ballot initiative approving the two-year structure in 1960. Numerous attempts to revert to yearly meetings -- including 10 bills introduced by retired Assemblyman Bob Price over his 28-year career -- failed to pass. In Montana, the political culture “opposes any expansion of government and is influenced by the belief that the legislature should remain a part-time, amateur legislature,” says Jeffrey Greene, a political scientist who researches state and local government at the University of Montana. State voters have rejected a constitutional amendment to establish yearly sessions three times since 1972.

But it has nothing to do with increasing the size of government, says Texas Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, who this session has proposed a modest version of the annual-session idea that would only pertain to passing a yearly budget. It’s his third attempt to change the legislative schedule since 2009. “I’m not talking about passing one more single law at all,” Raymond says. “The bottom line is we’re just too large a state to do this [only once every other year] efficiently and accurately.”

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