Legislative Sessions – Usually Slow to Start

By Andy Peterson

Four states hold biennial legislative sessions, meaning they meet every other year. They are Montana, North Dakota, Texas, and Nevada. Each state, meeting biennially, has a limited number of days it can meet by law. Texas can meet for 140 days. North Dakota can meet for 120 days. Montana can meet for 90 days, and Nevada can meet for 120 days. Why the states meet for varied lengths of time depends upon different reasons, but each state spells out the number of days it’s legislature can meet in its constitution thereby making the length of time its legislature meets difficult to change.

If you queried legislative watchers in each state you would likely come to understand each legislature have some similar traits. Politics aside, these traits seemingly reflect how legislators use their time. Most legislators spend their days attending hearings, attending their respective senate or house/assembly general sessions, and then they socialize at numerous gatherings in the evenings. Many legislators make the best of things as they come from far reaches of their states and up spend large amounts of time away from their families. For most it’s a privilege and a sacrifice to serve in the legislature.

One particular phenomenon likely common to all legislature’s – not just those who meet biennially – is a slow start. However, one wonders why, given the limited time allotted to legislators in Montana, North Dakota, Texas, and Nevada to conduct and complete their work in every other year session, the process to get going takes so long. Reasons are varied. For example, bills in Nevada are initiated through a system of bill draft resolutions, or BDRs. Each legislator is able to offer a limited number of BDRs by a certain date. Once BDRs are dropped, legislative counsel goes to work transforming the BDRs into full bill text which reflects the legislator’s intent. This can take an enormous amount of time. On the other hand, North Dakota bills are “dropped” having been entirely completed as full text prior to the deadline. Again, each legislator there gets to introduce a certain number of bills. Those in leadership get to hold a few to be introduced at any time throughout the session. Yet, each legislature – despite how they get their bills into final form – complete their full legislative work in 120 days.

There are many reasons legislatures always seem to take all the time allotted them prior to Sine Die, the day they complete their work and formally vote to end the session and go home. Some can be attributed to politics, some can be attributed to the challenges of process, and some can be attributed to human nature. Politics and process will always be part of any legislature. However, the real reason is that legislators are imilar to any other group, legislators seemingly tend to get things we done when a deadline is eminent. Psychological studies have shown that students usually study much harder when a deadline, or exam, looms. It’s not a far leap to understand legislators might act in a similar manner. After all, they have 120 days to get things done. Why not take the time and do it right?

With some insight in why legislatures use all their time no matter how much time is allotted, what remains a puzzle, however, is why basketball players take the first 58 minutes to play a measured game, then they try to play an entire game in the last two minutes?