Stories about state legislators being asleep at the wheel grab headlines on a regular basis. Even people who draft (and vote on) legislation for a living routinely overlook key provisions, or fail to grasp a provision’s full impact before it’s too late.
Looked at from the macro scale of 50 independent legislatures, the sheer volume of laws flowing from state capitols makes it difficult to stay aware of what gets added to each bill, nonetheless identify along the way which newly added provision will have an unexpectedly outsize impact.
For lawmakers, it can be an embarrassing mistake to make — and a costly one, too. That’s a lot of legislation. Make sure you don’t miss a thing.
The states are 17 times more productive than Congress
That’s a lot of legislation. Make sure you don’t miss a thing.Learn More
“I didn’t know those things were in the bill until I read about it the next day in the newspaper,” a Republican spokesperson said, via the Salt Lake Tribune.
Keeping tabs on last-minute amendments is one challenge; understanding the full impact of laws is another.
Long and Getting Longer
State legislatures passed 45,564 bills and resolutions in 2013 and 2014. Overall, states were six times more active than Congress, according to data from CQ Roll Call’s StateTrack.
State laws have grown longer, too. The average length of approved bills in 14 states has surpassed 1,000 words. And the average is much higher in some states. In Ohio, for example, the average bill is 8,047 words long.
All that action at state capitols creates challenges for those who track and interpret legislation.
Another cautionary tale played out this year in the Indiana General Assembly with HB 1394, which amended probationary driver laws.
The law went into effect on July 1. It was only then that its true extent surfaced: It banned the use of cell phones by all drivers under the age of 21.
“I learned it on the news, but I didn’t remember that happening,” State Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington, said via the Journal Gazette. “There seems to be more and more times where people are not being forthright with what’s in their bills.”
Huntington added that he wouldn’t have voted for the bill if he’d known about the cell phone ban for drivers under 21. He wasn’t alone, either. The provision caught at least three other state representatives by surprise.
Josh Gillespie, a spokesperson for the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles, said the law would have a “sweeping” effect on driving laws.
HB1394 and HB454 underscore the challenges of tracking issues across multiple state legislatures. There’s a flurry of action, and much of it has implications at the local, state and federal levels that is sometimes only fully realized after passage.
“The issues in the states become more and more important,” National Conference of State Legislatures Executive Director William Pound recently said. “We see the dysfunction in the federal government, and the fact that a lot of the issues people care most about are being worked on, massaged, at the state legislative level.”
Listen Through Your Grassroots
Digesting the changing minutia of state laws as they move the legislative process is a challenge. It isn’t a new one, however. For years, organizations with national agendas that focus heavily on the state and local levels have successfully accomplished this.
One such group, the Sierra Club, relies on third-party groups of farmers, hunters and arborists across the country to supply information on new state and local environmental policy.
Members of these third-party groups track state environmental policy and report back to the Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program. The group then implements strategic communications, litigation efforts and advocacy campaigns to help shape the policies. The Sierra Club’s grassroots network spans 40 states.
Aaron Mair, who was appointed the president of the Sierra Club in June, began at the grassroots level as a local activist.
“By passing through this organization from the grass roots to the top, I’ve developed intimate understanding of just how people organize and what community is to the Sierra Club at the grass roots,” Mair said.
Augment Your Grassroots Listening Through Twitter
Disseminating information and policy education is a key component of local grassroots campaigns. And anyone can tap into these information-sharing networks through social media, RSS feeds and email newsletters.
Megan Dorward, Twitter’s political and advocacy senior account executive, discussed how the social media platform allows people around the world to engage with issues at a local level in a recent interview with CQ Roll Call.
“Twitter is more than just a platform to share what someone ate with the world; Twitter is a powerful platform to find information, express ideas and gauge sentiment,” Dorward said. “Twitter is unique in that it is a live, public, conversational and global platform on which users can share and react to what is happening in the world around them in real time. It’s often a place where news is made first, and where people go to get information first, making Twitter, in essence, the first draft of history.”
Savvy state legislation and regulations trackers encircle their issue by building strategic Twitter lists that combine key lawmakers and advocates into a single stream.
For example, if you’re tracking agriculture issues in Virginia, you might start building a Twitter list that includes the following:
- Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association
- Each member of the Virginia Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee
- Each member of the Virginia House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee