State legislatures actively craft and enact laws that govern their respective states, playing a vital role in the democratic process. Understanding the functioning of these state institutions, as well as mastering the complexities inherent in the process of lawmaking, is essential to both citizens and advocates, such as public affairs professionals.

In this article, we will delve into the intricate steps of bill construction and its journey to becoming a law within United States state legislatures. Our exploration extends beyond coverage of diverse roles and functions in the legislative process; it also encompasses an analysis of lobbying's influence on law creation as well as illuminating the significant role held by each state governor.




Understanding the Role of State Legislatures


The Composition of State Legislatures

The Senate and House of Representatives (sometimes known as the Assembly or House of Delegates), the two chambers, comprise state legislatures, with each chamber executing distinct functions within the legislative process. Nebraska is the only state that does not make such a distinction and has a unicameral legislature.

The Senate typically represents broader constituencies: each senator stands as a representative for an entire district or region within their state. In contrast, members of the House of Representatives represent a smaller district within the state.

The number of citizens that each legislator represents varies widely by state. In California, with a population of roughly 40 million people, 120 total legislators represent the citizenry, with 40 senators and 80 assembly members. In New Hampshire, the 1.4 million people are represented by 424 legislators in the General Court, as the legislature is called. Some 400 of those legislators are members of the House. In terms of sheer numbers, that makes New Hampshire residents more than 100 times better represented in their legislature than Californians.


The Responsibilities of State Legislatures

State lawmakers shoulder the responsibility for crafting laws, supervising state agencies and endorsing budgets; they also champion their constituents' welfare.

These legislators often wrestle with an extensive range of issues that span education to health care and from transportation to public safety among others. The paramount goal of these policymakers is formulating effective policies and legislation that directly address their constituents' needs and concerns.


The Process of Drafting a Bill


Who Can Draft a Bill?

In state legislatures, the drafting of bills is not limited to lawmakers alone. Individuals and organizations outside the legislature can propose bills to address specific concerns or issues. These proposals, known as draft bills or bill requests, are often presented to lawmakers or specific committees for review and consideration.

Lawmakers frequently initiate bills in response to their constituents' needs and demands or as a strategic part of their legislative agenda. A series of steps transforms these drafted bills into laws: this is the lawmaking process; it involves meticulous deliberation and rigorous debate – an intricate dance performed by our elected officials in pursuit of effective governance.


The Elements of a Bill

Generally, a bill encompasses several fundamental elements: the title, which explicates the purpose and intent of the proposed law and an introductory preamble that explains the reasons for its enactment.

The bill's substantive content encompasses sections or articles that delineate the proposed modifications, augmentations or eliminations to current legislation. These sections ought to be unambiguous, succinct and readily understandable by legislators and the general populace.

Furthermore, bills include clauses addressing effective dates, enforcement mechanisms, penalties for noncompliance and any necessary appropriations. Lastly, bills require the sponsor's signature or the joint sponsorship of several lawmakers to signify support for the proposed legislation.


The Impact of Lobbying

At state legislatures, lobbying pivots the destiny of a bill and exerts influence throughout multiple stages of the legislative process. Lobbyists supply lawmakers with critical information and expertise; this aids them in making informed decisions regarding potential impacts as well as nuances inherent in proposed legislation.

Beyond mere advocacy, they actively engage in collaborative endeavors: formulating bills, suggesting amendments and cultivating robust support among legislators.

Lobbyists actively shape the narrative and policy discussions surrounding the bill by employing strategic lobbying tactics, including direct meetings, grassroots mobilization and media outreach. They present testimony during committee hearings, providing firsthand accounts, research and expert opinions to sway opinions and exert influence over the committee's recommendations.

Lobbyists also play a crucial role in countering opposition, addressing concerns raised by legislators or opposing interest groups through amendments or additional information.

Lobbyists closely monitor the legislative process and adapt their strategies in response to changing circumstances. Financial assistance, in the form of campaign contributions that are subject to regulations, can also influence lawmakers to support a bill. Each state sets its own lobbying disclosure policies and ethics rules governing the practice.


The Journey of a Bill Through Committees


The Role of Committees in Legislation

Committees are integral to the legislative process, serving as the primary vehicles for analyzing and shaping proposed bills. In state legislatures, bills typically go through various committees before reaching the chamber floor for debate and voting.

Committees consist of lawmakers who specialize in specific policy areas. These committees meticulously examine and debate bills within their jurisdiction, studying their potential implications, gathering expert testimonies and making amendments as necessary.


The Different Types of Committees

State legislatures establish a multitude of committees to tackle the myriad of issues they encounter, encompassing judiciary committees, education committees, transportation committees and appropriations committees, among others. Each committee concentrates on a distinct policy area and possesses expertise relevant to its jurisdiction.

Within each committee, lawmakers collaborate to review bills, conduct hearings, gather public input and analyze the potential impact of proposed legislation. These committee deliberations significantly influence a bill's language and content, shaping it to align with the scope and objectives of the committee's jurisdiction.


The Debate and Voting Process


The Rules of Debate in State Legislatures

After successfully passing through the committee stage, a bill proceeds to the legislative chamber's floor for debate. Lawmakers there, arguing either in favor or against the proposed legislation, offer their discussions and reasoning; orderly and constructive debates are ensured by rules and procedures established by state legislatures.

Debate rules establish the time allotted for each lawmaker's speech, the sequence of speakers and constraints on speaking duration. These regulations empower legislators to effectively express their stances and promote well-informed deliberation regarding proposed legislation.


How Voting on Bills Works

After the debate, lawmakers cast their votes on the bill. State legislatures typically require a majority or supermajority approval for passage of the bill; however, contingent upon legislative body rules and traditions, legislators can choose to vote electronically, orally or by raising their hands.

A bill attains passage within a specific chamber upon obtaining the necessary number of votes; however, it must still undergo an equivalent procedure in the opposing legislative chamber before being ready for the governor’s approval.


The Governor's Role in Bill Approval


The Power of Veto

After both chambers pass a bill, the state's governor receives it and possesses the power to either approve the bill, thus transforming it into law, or veto it, thereby impeding its progression towards becoming law.

However, the power of veto remains non-absolute: State legislatures can nullify a governor's veto with enough votes. In most cases, a two-thirds supermajority vote is required for such an override, but states vary. In some states, a simple majority is sufficient and in others three-fifths is required. In special cases in Arizona and Alaska, as much as three-quarters of the vote is required for an override.

This special legislative power not only underlines our legislature's intrinsic checks and balances but also equips lawmakers with the authority to enforce legislation - even when encountering resistance from their executive branch.



Understanding the process of how state legislatures create and pass bills is essential for anyone, but especially those involved in public affairs. This knowledge allows us to actively engage in shaping policies and laws that impact our states and communities.

If you're a public affairs professional looking for a tool to help you connect with legislators and staff across all 50 states, you might find LegiStorm’s public affairs software platform to be a valuable resource. This platform aids in staying informed and engaged in the legislative process, connecting you with the policymakers, lobbyists and organizations needed to further your cause.


Originally published December 30, 2023, updated April 5, 2024





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