Anyone who follows politics is familiar with the national Congress, and the various dramas and frustrations of passing laws at the national level. Yet many of us are not familiar with how our own state legislature operates, even though it passes laws that affect every aspect of local life. In our federal system, each state has wide latitude to create its own procedures. Despite a shared history and some of the oldest legislatures of the United States (legacies of the original British colonies), each New England state has its own unique quirks.
Massachusetts is unique among New England states for having the only full-time legislature in the region. This session is the 192nd “General Court” of the legislature – the term “General Court” grew out of the original Massachusetts Bay Colony General Court of 1629, when leaders met to pass laws and also decide legal cases. Unlike the national Congress, where Senators and Representatives serve longer terms of different lengths, legislative sessions in Massachusetts are two years for all legislators. There are no term limits except for certain positions, such as Speaker of the House. According to our Massachusetts state lead Kyle Murray, who worked for 9 years in the office of Senator Pacheco, this is intended to help retain institutional knowledge, as term limits and frequent turnover could eliminate experienced legislators. The first year of the session is largely dedicated to hearings, and most bills are passed in the second year of the session, often in a flurry of activity on the last few days.
Connecticut’s legislators also serve 2-year terms, but unlike Massachusetts, the legislature is in session for only half the year. Sessions are held from January to June in odd-numbered years, and from February to May in even-numbered years. According to Connecticut state lead Amy McLean, this part-term legislative schedule is a vestige of the early days of the Connecticut colony, when most members were directly involved in agriculture and were only able to be away from their farms during the winter and early spring. Although legislators are technically part-time, they are contacted by constituents year-round. As Amy says, being an elected official in the Connecticut legislature is really a “full-time job with part-time pay.” During the summer and fall, Acadia Center and other advocates prepare intensively for the next session that begins in the winter by meeting with legislators, hammering out coalition priorities and strategizing which bills to introduce in the next session.
Rhode Island’s calendar is very similar to Connecticut’s: a six-month session starting in January each year, with the occasional special session to deal with urgent issues. As a part-time legislature the Rhode Island General Assembly conducts most official business in the evenings, enabling legislators to also hold jobs during the day. However, as with any political position, the work of a legislator extends well beyond hearings and votes and requires engagement with citizens and advocates (like Acadia Center) on a year-round basis.
The passage of bills through the General Assembly is complex: unlike the Joint Committee structure of most legislatures, House and Senate committees in Rhode Island function separately, which means two versions of each legislative proposal advance independently through each chamber. State lead Hank Webster works to coordinate policy development across both chambers, with Acadia Center’s priority bills often passing through the Environment and Natural Resources Committee or Corporations Committee in the House, and the Environment and Agriculture Committee and Commerce Committee in the Senate.
Founded in 1832, the Maine legislature follows a 2-year schedule and is also in session only during the winter and spring months. In the Maine legislature, members of both Houses are elected for two-year terms and are limited to four consecutive terms. During the first regular session, a legislator may submit legislation on any topic. In the second year, the Constitution of Maine limits bills to those proposed by the Governor, emergency, directed-study, and direct initiative bills.
A part-time legislative system, (also known as a traditional or citizen legislature) leads to a different profile of legislators than in states with a full-time system. Having a job separate from being a legislator can be helpful in terms of grounding legislators in real-world issues. According to our Maine state lead Jeff Marks, the Maine legislature is very diverse in terms of occupations, from fishermen to small business owners to lawyers, as well as retirees with a range of experiences. As with other states, the part-time structure limits who can be a legislator, because people who have full-time, year-round jobs or who cannot support themselves on a part-time salary may choose not to be legislators.