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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. 

By mid-April, the 2014 legislative session had ended in Nebraska, with its 49 senators leaving the Capitol and returning to their jobs and lives outside of state government. But the work of state government continues, with many important decisions left in the hands of Nebraska’s state agencies....
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Which states operate under full-time legislatures, and which have part-time lawmakers? The answer is not always clear-cut, and is based on a mix of factors such as compensation, days in session and staffing levels. But there is no question that Michigan employs a full-time model. Its 148 legislators meet year-round and are paid an annual salary of $71,685.

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When Wisconsin lawmakers authorized the establishment of a “working library” to be housed in the state Capitol in 1901, the seed was planted for what soon became an invaluable resource for the Legislature and the citizens of Wisconsin.
More than 100 years later, the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau — the nation’s first nonpartisan legislative service agency to provide drafting and research services to legislators — boasts an impressive record of innovation and public service and remains a vital facilitator of the legislative process in Madison.

State policymakers looking for an innovative policy response to an issue they face can find it in The Council of State Governments’ cookbook for state policy—Suggested State Legislation. The program, commonly known as SSL, is one of the oldest tools CSG offers in its efforts to serve the states.

by Michael Christensen

Michael Christensen, chair of CSG West’s Legislative Service Agency/Research Directors Committee, has been director of Utah’s Office of Legislative Research & General Counsel for 13 years. His staff of 60 helps state legislators be more effective. Here are his tips for new and experienced lawmakers on how legislative staffers can help.

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