CongressLine by The State Legislatures

My world of legislative monitoring is completely focused on one legislative body – the U.S. Congress. But from time to time, I get inquiries about the states. When such inquiries come, my usual reaction is either laughter or a shudder. Anyone who has some familiarity with the procedures and mechanics of the U.S. Congress should have no trouble understanding the process in the states since they are almost identical in structure. However, they may well be bewildered by the culture and sorely disappointed with the type and quantity of the information they can receive.

Every state has a legislative system that is a nearly identical to the Federal government in that each has a governor, each has a two-chambered legislature (except Nebraska), and each has state agencies that report to the Governor and are funded and overseen by the legislature. Bills wind their way through both chambers, committees, and to the Governor in much the same fashion as Washington, DC. That is where the similarities stop. From, this point on, nothing is the same in the states.

The states relationship to the Federal government could and should be the subject of a much longer dissertation. Briefly, the role of the states in the U.S. Federal Republic is considerable, though the states have become much more subservient to the Feds in the 20th century due to a combination of passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913 (when the states ceased appointing their Senators and began popularly electing them) and a significant rise in federal governmental functions and responsibilities. If the Federal government pays for anything, Federal strings are always attached. This does not mean that the states are simply a minor league to the Federal major league. Some issues are either traditionally or even constitutionally the responsibility of state governments. Insurance regulation is one big area, but also many education issues. Lately the states’ role of defining marriage has been very topical as well. You should not confuse the state legislature’s relationship with Congress with any state legislature’s relationship with a city or county council. The State – Congress relationship is much more complex.

Years ago, when my employer was attempting to provide legislative intelligence at the state level, an attempt that failed quite soundly, I made a point to visit every single state capitol in the 18 southern States and meet with either the legislative aides of each governors’ office or key agencies. I succeeded and have a lifetime of stories to tell. Every one of them featured their own unique angle and culture to the tried and true legislative process. While I found this quaint, researchers can find this frustrating. The more eccentric the state is culturally, the more eccentric they are legislatively.

The legislative season differs significantly between states. While some states, such as California, Michigan and New York, seek to be full time affairs, meeting all year long like the U.S. Congress, most do not. In fact, most states meet only for a short time, usually for a couple of months a year, sometimes every two years. If you follow the state legislatures, your busy time is January – June with the busiest months being February through April. Most states do not have full time legislators; they are teachers, lawyers and business people with other lives to lead. This is part of the allure of these legislatures; they are not made up of professional political folks like the U.S. Congress. Sure there are the power players who usually seek higher office like a Governorship or the US. Congress, but most state legislators are not of this ilk.

Texas is an interesting example. One of the largest states in the union, it still has a part-time legislature. They officially must meet once every 2 years. Every even year, for a couple of months, the state legislature convenes in Austin, Texas which is a very interesting place. The excessive drinking of yesteryear may be gone in Austin but the political theater is in full form. Other favorites for political theater are Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Montgomery, Alabama. In Columbia, South Carolina, I watched the august state legislature meet in hotel ballroom as the capitol building was under renovation. Legislative offices were down in the hotel kitchen, complete with leaky pipes. Public opinion about state legislatures rank at about the same level as the national legislature – a recent Governor of Minnesota, citing the legislature’s ineffectiveness, actually proposed to abolish one of the chambers.

In addition to sporadic meeting times, a second factor that greatly affects legislative monitoring in the states is speed. Since the legislative calendar is so short, legislation can speed through the legislature much faster than the Federal legislature. One southern legislator once boasted to me that he introduced a bill in the House, it passed, and he walked it over to the Senate for consideration and passage all in one afternoon. I didn’t bother to verify the boast, but it seemed plausible. Legislative tracking for same day action is just not possible in most states, though it is at the Federal level. (and hopefully you have been ready this monthly column to find out how)

The biggest headache for legislative monitoring in the states are the documents. I have been spoiled by the large variety of different types of documents now readily available at the Federal level. Letters, a wide array of reports, committee amendment text and reports, quick dissemination of bill text versions, statutory analysis, bill comparisons, etc, have fed my policy-making addiction quite well. The states, however, can be like going cold turkey and because there are 50 states (forget about the District of Columbia, everyone else does) the volume of this weak assortment of information is daunting.

Each state legislature has their own web site and in most cases you can search the text of bills introduced and check on the current status. Each one is different. Some are very sophisticated and offer email alerts, while others are very rudimentary. Almost every state has its own GalleryWatch type organization monitoring things locally for a fee. Of course, there is always a whole street in every state capital city populated by lobbying firms waiting to assist for an even larger fee. Do not expect a variety of information in all states; do not expect to always see a committee report, for example. The documents available so easily at the Federal level either are not available or in most cases do not exist in most states.

Multiple state monitoring is a challenge. There are some good organizations that make it their business to monitor issues across all 50 states, (my favorite has been Multistate because a human being assists in sorting through things). There are online sources, too, and they are available on Lexis and Westlaw. The real problem with online monitoring of multiple states is timeliness; aggregators have such a large volume and so many different variables that getting a bill that was introduced today to show up in an online notice tomorrow for every possible state is not yet possible. Combine this problem with the huge volume of bills. One important bill in New Hampshire is buried amongst hundreds of other bills. Remember, most state legislatures are meeting from January through June, almost everything that happens, happens in this concentrated time frame. What may take months or weeks on the Federal level may happen much quicker in a state.

This is the experience I had to deal with during my brief tenure in the states: how do you accumulate all this information not for 8,000 bills a year, but for hundreds of thousands of bills every year? People who monitor state legislative developments have to screen through thousands bills on their topic. Everyone in the state field soon realizes that it really isn’t the monitoring of things but the intelligence, some way to find that important bill without having to look through the whole universe. Do you really want to read every single school finance bill introduced in all the states?

We (Legi-Slate – see this article) attempted to plug this information gap with a creative but unwieldy network of stringers in all 50 state capitols. These stringers, mostly correspondents for the major state capitol dailies seeking some additional income, would be tasked by a network of field editors to carry out intelligence gathering on selected issues. It made sense, but it failed as the result of another major challenge in addressing state materials, namely, the high cost of monitoring 50 state capitols at once.

The number of issues that are solely the responsibility of the states are declining. Sometimes the states take a lead on a specific issue that is stalled in Congress. This happened in the last few years with stem cell research. As the federal government limited stem cell research with federal funds, some states responded with their own programs. This in turn spurned Congress to take up the issue again. Marriage rights issues, stymied in Washington, DC, are now playing out in the states, but if the courts intervene, Congress will probably take the issue up. This cat and mouse type game is typical of the states vs. the federal government. A few years ago, states were writing legislation that required health insurance companies to cover specific illnesses and conditions. The insurance companies cried for help, not to the states but to Congress.

Then there is the funding issue. If federal funds are paying for any portion of a state program, for example Medicaid, then Congress and Federal rules will trump the states. Congress allocates only a tiny percentage of the funding for public education, but the Federal No Child Left Behind Program has taken over how local schools teach. As this trend continues and if Congress proceeds with more preemptory legislative maneuvers (pre-empting the states prerogatives) then the role of the states would be more appropriately defined as a minor league – major league type of relationship. Until then and preserved by some constitutional protections, state legislatures will continue to require some attention. If you ask me for help, I may laugh, but at least I can tell you some good stories.

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