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Ask Bob: The Lowdown On How Long Legislative Sessions Last In Vermont

A splitscreen of the Statehouse at left in winter and at right in spring
Taylor Dobbs (left), Emily Alfin Johnson (right)
VPR File
Lawmakers hope to adjourn this year's session on May 18, 2019. In this 'Ask Bob,' we learn a bit more about the history of Vermont legislative session lengths.

We're getting down to the final weeks of the 2019 Vermont legislative session, which got us wondering: How long do sessions usually last? What controls the length of a session? Are sessions longer today than they were in 1860s, or the even the 1960s?

For answers, we turn to VPR's senior political reporter Bob Kinzel for another segment of "Ask Bob."

When does a session end?

Lawmakers hope to adjourn this year's session on May 18, 2019... though this could change.

In general, the state budget really drives the end date of the legislative session. Usually lawmakers allocate enough money to meet for roughly 36 weeks over the biennium, so that's 18 weeks in each year.

Sometimes the first year of the biennium, the session runs a little longer. If that happens then lawmakers have to "borrow" a week or two from the following year. As a result, they won't have as much time in the second year.

...And if they don't end on time?

Lawmakers and legislative staff still get paid if the Legislature runs long. It takes roughly $250,000 a week to keep the full Legislature in session, which includes salaries, meals and lodging.

However, the decision to extend a session isn’t something lawmakers take lightly. They have to vote to authorize this additional money, which has the potential to draw criticism from voters who argue they don’t have compelling enough reasons to stay that extra time.

The session schedule, pre-1967

In the early days of Vermont’s statehood, lawmakers would meet several times a year in different locations. In 1782, for example, there was a winter session in Bennington, a spring session in Windsor, and a fall session in Manchester.

This changed in 1805 when Montpelier was chosen as the state capital, and legislative sessions became something that happened in one location once a year (until 1870 when they went to one session every two years).

Back then, legislative sessions began in October and generally ran for about five or six weeks. During World War I, the start of the session was moved to the beginning of January — this was likely to better accommodate the needs of farmers.

It's worth noting that until 1836, Vermont had a "unicameral" legislature, meaning the state had just the House and there was no Senate. Vermont’s Senate was added in 1837, via a Constitutional amendment.

More from Ask BobHow Vermont Makes Amendments To Its State Constitution

The session schedule, post-1967

One of the biggest changes in legislative sessions was instituted in 1967. Instead of meeting once every two years, lawmakers began to meet in Montpelier every January.

Why did this change happen? To understand we have to go back to 1966, when there was a reapportionment of the Vermont House. Before that time every town, regardless of size, had one representative in the House. The reapportionment reduced the size of the House from roughly 250 members to 150.

This impacted the kinds of issues that come before the Legislature, because now the urban areas had more political clout. That’s why lawmakers decided in 1967 that it would be better to meet and address the budgetary needs of the state on an annual basis.

As a result of this change, the amount of time that lawmakers are "in session" basically doubles from 1960 to 1980.        

The longest session

Vermont is one of 12 states that has no constitutional limit for the length of a session.

The longest legislative session on record was in 1994. It lasted 160 days, and went until June 12. 

Session lengths around the USA

Nationwide, states fall into three categories when it comes to legislative length:

  1. States like Vermont, which traditionally hold a session every year that lasts between four and five months. This represents a majority of states.
  2. States that meet on a full-time basis. Lawmakers in these states typically receive full-time salaries and have staff. There are roughly 10 states in this group.
  3. States that meet for short sessions, that only last around two months. The only states in this group are Louisiana, Florida, West Virginia, Wyoming and Utah.

Have a question for Bob? Send an email. And past questions Bob has answered here.

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