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Legislative Organization: An Overview
There is no "off the shelf" formula for creating a state legislature, and legislative assemblies in the United States illustrate the wide variety of organizational patterns—varying in size, structure and partisan composition.
State legislatures vary in size, and they currently range from 49 to 424 total members. Legislative size has not remained static, however; numerous legislatures have changed size in the past four decades.
Bicameral or unicameral. A legislature may be divided into a Senate and House or Assembly (that is, be bicameral), or it may have only one chamber (that is, be unicameral). Today, 49 states have bicameral legislatures, and one—Nebraska—is unicameral.
This was not always the case, however. Most of the American colonies were governed by one-house legislatures, but this gradually shifted. By 1763, only two colonies (Delaware and Pennsylvania) continued to use unicameral legislatures. After independence, all but three states (Georgia, Pennsylvania and Vermont) adopted bicameral systems similar to that of the newly created U.S. Congress. Georgia's one-house legislature was short-lived, being replaced with a bicameral system in 1789. Pennsylvania moved to a two-chamber legislature in 1790. Until Nebraska, Vermont was the last state to use a unicameral legislature; it switched structural formats in 1836. Nebraska had a traditional two-house legislature while it was a territory and for nearly 75 years after it became a state. In 1934, Nebraska voters approved a constitutional amendment that changed the legislature to a nonpartisan, one-house body; the first session of the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature began in January 1937.
The structures of the legislatures for U.S. territories also vary. Three—American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico—have bicameral legislatures, and three—District of Columbia, Guam and Virgin Islands—are unicameral.
Full-time or part-time. Categories of state legislatures may be established to illustrate degrees of professionalization. And it seems like an easy question: Which legislatures are full-time and which ones are part-time? But with 50 different formulas for designing a state legislature, it's difficult to paint this issue in black and white. So NCSL has done it in Red, White and Blue.
Democrat...Green...Independent...Republican....State legislators differ in their political party affiliations, so every legislative election impacts the partisan composition of chambers in all states except Nebraska. Legislators in Nebraska are required to run on a nonpartisan basis.
While one political party typically controls a legislative chamber, equal splits in partisan composition occur more frequently than most people expect. A partisan stalemate does not mean the business of the state comes to a halt, however. Find out what legislative chambers have done when faced with legislative deadlock.