On Dec. 16, the president signed the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2015, the $1.1 trillion spending bill passed by Congress last week. The legislation is a mix between a short-term continuing resolution, known as a “C.R.,” and a long-term omnibus spending bill. The legislation, known as the “CR-omnibus,” funds most of the government through September 2015. The exception is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which is funded only through Feb. 27, 2015.

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More than 100 years ago, the state of Wisconsin started what has since become an indispensable part of the daily work of state legislatures — the nonpartisan legislative service agency. From bill drafting to a host of research services, agency staff help make the legislative process work in capitols across the country, as political scientist Gary Moncrief noted this summer in a presentation to the Midwest’s state legislators.

Since the 1970s, he said, state legislatures have been professionalized and their role in public policy enhanced thanks to a series of reforms, among them a rise in legislative staff. For example, between 1979 and 2009, the median number of legislative staff per member of the legislature has risen from 2.7 to 3.9. (That also includes partisan staff and staff for individual legislators.)

“These reforms were largely effective in making legislatures co-equal branches of government,” Moncrief told the Midwestern Legislative Conference.
But while all states rely heavily on nonpartisan staff, the structure and duties of these agencies can vary.

Relatively few state legislative seats were up in 2013 and the only major change was in functional control of the Virginia Senate, where the Democrats eked out control. Republicans, however, continue to dominate the legislative branch across the country by controlling 26 state legislatures, compared to only 19 held by Democrats. Only four states have divided legislative control, representing near historic lows of split control. 

Chapter 3 of the 2014 Book of the States contains the following articles and tables:

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Over the past year, Michigan legislators and a group of citizens have teamed up to pass measures using a lawmaking option available in only one other Midwestern state. Most recently, the Legislature passed a citizen-initiated statute on wolf hunting. According to mlive.com, the measure is an attempt to allow the hunting to continue. In December, legislators approved a citizen-initiated petition that prohibits insurers from including abortion coverage as a standard part of plans.
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Earlier this year, Roll Call — the news source dedicated to covering Capitol Hill — ran a short headline that summed up much of U.S. policymaking today. "It’s the states, stupid,” the magazine declared. Gridlock continues to reign in the nation’s capital, with power divided among two political parties that have become more ideologically distinct and among members of U.S. Congress who have become more ideologically distant from one another. That contrasts with trends at the state level, where a single party now controls the governor’s office and both legislative chambers in close to 80 percent of state capitols. That is the highest rate of unified government in more than 50 years.

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In Michigan, the state’s legislators meet year-round, earn among the highest legislative salaries in the nation, and get support from a staff of more than 700 people. For a time earlier this year, some inside the Capitol wondered if that might all soon change.

A petition drive to make Michigan a part-time legislature — with much lower staffing levels and legislative pay, along with session days limited to 60 days per year — was being pushed with plans to put it on the ballot later this year.

That drive has since stalled, though supporters of the change have vowed to continue to seek wider support statewide. And the recent activity in Michigan begs the question: Is one model, part-time legislature or full-time legislature, better than the other?

On July 24, 2014, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI-1), Chairman of the House Budget Committee, introduced a discussion draft outlining a plan to reform federal anti-poverty programs. Ryan’s Expanding Opportunity in America proposal aims to consolidate federal programs to reduce redundancy while also granting states more authority in the administration of federal programs in order to improve overall efficiency.

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In Minnesota, a 75-year-old law had made it illegal to drive in neutral. Another measure made it a misdemeanor to carry fruit in an illegally sized container. Those statutes — and many others — are now gone as the result of what Gov. Mark Dayton and state lawmakers dubbed the 2014 “unsession.” In all, close to 1,200 laws and other state policies were eliminated or changed.

Town of Greece v. Galloway could have been one of those cases where the Supreme Court totally changed the law.  But it wasn’t probably because two things “die hard” in the Supreme Court:  precedent and tradition.  Both lead to an inescapable (if 5-4) decision that if legislative prayer will die, it will “die another day.”  

In short, the Supreme Court held that the Town of Greece did not violate the First Amendment by opening its meetings with a prayer relying on precedent and the long-standing tradition of legislative prayer. 

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