Here’s a maxim that may be more true than not: Congress gets the attention, but state legislatures do the work.
While it might not be fair to malign a Congress that passed major bills on prescription drug costs, climate change, gun control, infrastructure and pandemic relief in the last 18 months, it is fair to say that state lawmakers don’t get attention commensurate with their work—except from government affairs teams.
Advocacy pros pay a lot of attention to the states. They know these lawmakers have a primary hand in regulating education, public health, insurance and disaster relief; that they heavily influence policy on vaccination, energy, infrastructure, transportation, the environment and more; and that state law determines many personal rights, such how—and sometimes whether—you can legally ride a motorcycle, buy a gun, smoke marijuana or obtain an abortion.
Nearly every industry is regulated by the states in some way, which is why government affairs teams are preparing now for next year’s legislative sessions, many of which kick off in January. On many government affairs teams, tracking legislation, talking to lawmakers and launching grassroots campaigns will dominate the first quarter.
To help your team prepare, Capitol Canary from Quorum interviewed experts in state advocacy. They represent small states and large, Republicans and Democrats, insiders and influencers. We asked all about the essential ingredients of effective state advocacy, as well as some of the mistakes they often see. The result is Driving Impact in the States, a report designed to help you get ready for the busy days ahead.
We also looked at data from KnowWho, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the Center for American Women and Politics and other sources to better understand who serves in America’s state legislatures. That data is included here—and it may tell you something new.
Party, Gender and Diversity
There are almost 7,400 state lawmakers working in 99 legislative chambers nationwide (it would be 100, but Nebraska has a unicameral legislature). Those lawmakers will stand for election in 46 states come November, meaning about 85% of the country’s state legislators will face voters. When next year’s sessions start, there may be many new faces.
Among state legislators nationwide, 54% are Republicans, who hold a majority in 62 legislative chambers, and 44% are Democrats, who control 36 chambers, according to Ballotpedia. (One chamber, the Alaska House, has a power sharing agreement between parties.) Overall, Republicans control both chambers of the legislature and the governorship—known as a “trifecta”—in 23 states, Democrats do so in 14 states and government is divided in the remaining 13.
As a group, state lawmakers are not terribly diverse, and generally fall well short of equal representation when compared to the overall population. As Politico wrote in a 2021 analysis, “in many states, the officials elected to legislative office don’t look much like the people they represent.” For example:
- Gender. Only about 31% of state lawmakers are women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Yet women are more than 50% of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Of course, there has been progress. Nevada’s legislature is the first in U.S. history to contain a majority of women and Colorado stands at about 47%, according to an NCSL study in 2020. But Politico’s analysis found that, while 37 states increased the number of female lawmakers between 2015 and 2020, the rest remained static or declined.
- Race and Ethnicity. According to the NCSL, state lawmakers were 78% white in 2020. Black representation stood at 10% in 2020, versus almost 14% for the overall U.S. population. Latino representation was 5%, while about 19% of Americans are Latino. Though almost half the states saw the number of Latino lawmakers increase—and New Mexico stands apart at 35%—the low percentage is notable because America’s Latino population is growing both in size and political power. Latinos fueled much of America’s overall population growth between 2010 and 2020, and Latino voters have turned out in record numbers. Latino turnout increased more than 30% in 2020 over 2016. In fact, more Latinos voted in 2020 than in any other time in U.S. history, according to The New York Times.
- LGBTQ. LGBTQ representation in American politics has grown substantially in recent years, according to the Victory Institute’s 2022 Out for America report. But with only 192 LGBTQ lawmakers serving in U.S. states and territories, about 2.5% of the total, the numbers are still far from equal representation in a country where the LGBTQ population is more than 7%.
Pay and Productivity
Unlike Congress, which is considered a full-time legislature and works throughout a two-year session, most state legislatures do not make law year-round. Rather, many are considered “citizen legislatures,” where lawmakers work during a short, months-long session and often have a separate career outside politics. About 10 states have a full-time legislature and 14 have a part-time legislature, according to an NCSL report in 2021. The rest are in a gray area, short of full-time but more than part-time.
About 76% of lawmakers have other jobs, according to a 2017 study by the Center for Public Integrity and the Associated Press. Most analyses show legislatures tend to be thick with lawyers, business owners and those who come from industry, though the Center’s study found a helicopter pilot, a pizza delivery man—even a college student. “Some legislators also drive taxis, wait tables, own cemeteries, judge boxing matches, play guitar in rock bands or deal in rare coins,” the report said.
When you consider legislative compensation, it becomes clear why many have outside employment. While base pay for a member of Congress is $174,000 a year, with those in leadership making more, the average salary for a state lawmaker (in the 41 states that pay an annual salary) was $39,216, according to an NCSL report in 2021. California topped the list, paying almost $115,000, and New Hampshire was at the bottom, paying $100 a year since 1889.
If lawmakers in some states are underpaid, they are understaffed almost everywhere. The 50 state legislatures had about 31,000 staffers in 2015, the last time NCSL published data, and that included about 5,500 staff that were added just for the legislative session. By comparison, Congress—a single legislature, albeit a big one at 535 voting members—has about 13,000 staff.
The problem is made clear when you look at the amount of legislation addressed by state and federal lawmakers. While the number of bills is a crude measure of legislative activity—a single bill can run to hundreds of pages and create massive change—it illustrates a point. Congress introduced more than 16,000 bills in 2021 and 2022. Not all will be considered and fewer still will pass, but it is a gauge of the amount of work. In the states, that number was more than 70,600 in 2022 alone, according to Quorum’s State Legislative Trends Report. Add in the so-called “carryover” bills from 2021, and the number rose to more than 135,000.
With the federal government increasingly pushing issues to the states, next year’s sessions promise to be equally busy. There’s a lot of work ahead in the states.