40 U.S. states don't have a full-time legislature

In trying to figure out if and how state governments are equipped to become active on the international stage, I also looked at their policy-making capabilities. Governors have long been traveling abroad and state legislatures, too, are active internationally. But the analysis of policy-making capabilities revealed differences among the states.

Governors are oftentimes the most prominent state politician, their office is backed by a considerable bureaucracy and they set the political and public agenda in their states. Over the years, they have gained better staff support, lengthened terms and more control over the executive branch, specifically the budgetary process.

Different levels of professionalization in the state legislatures

State legislatures, in contrast, have been found to lag behind in this professionalization of state governments. State legislators are better educated and more experienced now than they were a couple of decades ago, but the institution of the state legislature has not advanced as quickly as its members.1Moncrief, Gary & Peverill Squire. (2013). Why States Matter. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. Here: pp. 63, 67. Generally, state legislatures meet more often than they did in the 1960s and along with increased pay and staff support for legislators, these improved working conditions are indicators of a more professionalized state government.

Differences among states remain, however, showing that professionalization of state legislatures has not happened across the board. In the map on state legislatures below, I used the data from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) for the years 2015/2016 (the years covered in my study) and added the number of state legislators and whether their terms are limited. This provides a comprehensive overview over the heterogeneous nature of state legislatures across the U.S. Most crucially, only ten states have full-time legislatures.

The NCSL differentiates between full-time, part-time and hybrid state legislatures. In hybrid state legislatures, legislators typically “spend more than two-thirds of a full time job being legislators.”2National Conference of State Legislatures. (2014, June 1). Full- and Part-Time Legislatures. Retrieved November 12, 2015, from http://www.ncsl.org/research/about-statelegislatures/full-and-part-time-legislatures.aspx Full-time legislators spend at least 80 percent of their time as legislators, while part-time legislatures are made up of politicians who usually have another job. Their legislative pay is rather low and their work as a state senator or representative is roughly equivalent to half of a full-time job.

Types of state legislatures with sizes and term limits

Adapted from National Conference of State Legislatures3National Conference of State Legislatures. (2013, March 11). Number of Legislators and Length of Terms in Years. Retrieved December 3, 2016, from
http://www.ncsl.org/research/about-state-legislatures/number-of-legislators-andlength-of-terms.aspx; National Conference of State Legislatures. (2014, June 1). Full- and Part-Time Legislatures. Retrieved November 12, 2015, from http://www.ncsl.org/research/about-statelegislatures/full-and-part-time-legislatures.aspx; National Conference of State Legislatures. (2015, March 13). The Term-Limited States.
Retrieved December 3, 2016, from http://www.ncsl.org/research/about-statelegislatures/chart-of-term-limits-states.aspx.

Notes: The numbers show the number of state senators and state representatives in each state. Shaded gray
are those states with term limits. Map template created with Datawrapper.

Combining the number of hybrid legislatures with the 16 states having part-time legislatures, only 10 states have legislatures with full-time politicians. As an example of legislative professionalization, the total number of staff for all 50 states has grown from nearly 27,000 to over 31,000 between 1979 and 2015. Still, 17 states have decreased their staff within that same time frame.

In 15 states, term limits are in place to prevent a dominance of career politicians, which could potentially curb the professionalism of a legislature. This has not been found to be the case, however, as “[t]erm limits do not alter the number of days a legislature meets, the salary its members earn, or the staff that is provided”4Squire, Peverill. (2007). Measuring State Legislative Professionalism: The Squire Index Revisited. State Politics & Policy Quarterly, 7(2), 211-227. Here: p. 215, which are all indicators for measuring legislative professionalization.

None of these measures specifically address the capabilities of state legislatures to deal with international issues such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and in my study, I did not only consider the existing quantitative and qualitative measures of professionalization. Yet, the ongoing study of state legislatures has clearly shown both the general trend towards professionalization and the big interstate differences – underlining how a federal system allows for and encourages various forms of governmental structures.