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Capital Closeup: Practices, laws on legislative adjournment and session lengths vary across the Midwest

by Laura Kliewer ~ July/August 2013 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Detailed table on laws determining session length »
In Iowa, legislators can meet in session as long as they like — no state statutes or legislative rules prescribe a maximum number of days.
But the Iowa Code does provide at least one incentive for legislators to finish the state’s business in a timely manner. After 110 calendar days in odd-numbered years and 100 days in even years, per-diem payments for state legislators ($134 a day for most of them) end.
But this year, following a pattern of at least recent years, legislators were in Des Moines past that indirect, or soft, statutory deadline; they were still busy hammering out compromises and final details on key issues involving health care, K-12 education reform and changes in the property tax code.
“Most Iowa legislators accept the fact that we won’t complete the session in the respective 100 or 110 days,” Iowa Sen. Darryl Beall says. “Staying in Des Moines on our own dime is a sacrifice, especially in view of the fact we earn $25,000 annually. Perhaps more of a motivator to leave the Capitol in a timely manner is the nervousness and eagerness of the farmer-legislators to tend to their fields.”
As Beall describes it, there is indeed a push among part-time legislators to get back to their work and lives outside the Capitol, but there is also the pull of finishing the state’s business.
“Regardless of how long the duration [of session], most of the details are worked out in the closing days, indeed in the closing hours,” he says.
Without a hard cap on when sessions must end, that means going overtime in Iowa is sometimes inevitable. (In fact, Beall cites the legislature’s “funnel” deadlines — when a measure must pass one legislative chamber and a standing committee in the other house — as being more important to expediting adjournment than the legislators’ loss of per diem.)
As in Iowa, legislatures in most of the 11 Midwestern states do not operate year-round. Session lengths are set in statute in Indiana and in the constitutions of five states: Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. Some of these laws set a maximum number of legislative or calendar days, while others establish the month and date when a session must end (see table).
In Kansas and Nebraska, lawmakers can extend sessions with a super-majority vote of the legislature (two-thirds vote in Kansas, four-fifths in Nebraska).
Illinois, like Iowa, does not have a law prescribing the duration of legislative sessions. Instead, an Illinois law on when bills take effect is used to encourage the legislature to finish its business. Nineteen years ago, voters changed the state Constitution (via a legislatively referred constitutional amendment) so that any bill passed after May 31 cannot take effect until June of the following year, unless three-fifths of the members of each house votes to provide for any earlier date. This change was intended to move up adjournment from June 30 to May 31.
South Dakota was the last Midwestern state to change its constitutional language defining the length of sessions. In 2008, voters extended the length of sessions from 35 days to 40.
North Dakota is the only Midwestern state where the legislature convenes only once every two years. This year, for the first time, the North Dakota Legislative Assembly met for the full 80 days granted under the state Constitution. Some lawmakers say the legislative branch needs even more time to do its work and have proposed changing the maximum number of session days to 120. A separate proposal this year called for the legislature to meet every year.


Capital Closeup is an ongoing series of articles done by CSG Midwest highlighting institutional issues in state government and legislatures.