10 Steps (Plus 1) for State Legislation Tracking

by Burney Simpson // Aug 03, 2015 State & Local

How To: Tracking State Legislation

Tracking state legislation is no easy task, and it’s even tougher if you are following it from afar. But you can stay on top of things by taking a disciplined approach to learning the mechanics of legislative activity in the state and who pulls the levers.

States and their statehouses have much in common with the federal system. All but Nebraska have two legislative bodies, and most call them the House and the Senate. To become law legislation must be passed by both bodies and signed by the governor.

But each statehouse has its own characteristics and procedures. It’s near impossible to learn all that background with an afternoon cram session or even during a three-month legislative session.

Likewise, this article can’t cover the process of all 50 states. Instead, it is intended as an overview to help get you started. You must do the research to discover the exact procedures in the state you are following.  

Here are some state legislation tracking tips to get you there.

1. Read the Reporters/Experts

Follow the reporters that cover the statehouse. The AP, the state’s major media outlets and public radio should have someone there, and some local TV stations cover the legislature when it is in session.

Look for the academic experts sited in the statehouse stories. These teachers may have a deep background on the statehouse and they often run small research offices on state politics.

2. The Schedule

Find when the session will begin and end. Many statehouses operate in compressed sessions, so they must efficiently address the thousands of proposals introduced. They usually move much faster than the U.S. Congress. For example, the 50 statehouses and the District of Columbia passed 45,564 bills and resolutions in 2013 and 2014, compared with the 352 passed by the Congress during that time.

Statehouses operate on a mix of calendar systems. It may be a one-year or a two-year calendar system, and they may meet in spring and/or fall sessions. Some legislatures hold special sessions to address the budget or another major issue.

3. How a Bill Becomes Law

There is no one method for enacting laws in all 50 states. The best way to find how your state works just may be to find that old primer on How a Bill Becomes Law.

Get an understanding of the nuts and bolts of the writing and introduction of a bill, how it is assigned to a committee, and who controls whether the bill will get a hearing or collects dust.

The office of the state parliamentarian is often the best source to contact for details. You may also want to check with that previously mentioned academic (from tip #1 above), the bill’s sponsor and staff, or call upon one of your allies.

In general, a legislator and/or staff will craft a proposal, and file it with the office of their legislative leader. That leader may choose to send it to a specific committee, or it could go to a catch-all committee that decides where it fits, or ignores it for the rest of the session.

Politics come into play. Leaders will seek to place a favored bill where it will move quickly, and an unfavorable bill where it will wither.

Additionally, there may be a version of a bill for both the House and Senate, or there may be a single version designed to pass one chamber and move to the next. You will have to carefully follow the proposal however it is moving through the legislature.

4. Bill Background

Your bill will be assigned a tracking number, usually beginning with an H or S, depending whether it is moving through the House or Senate. You can use the tracking number on the state’s legislative website to follow the bill.

In many states each party will conduct an analysis of the proposal including its impact on the budget. Get copies of these documents and any other analysis of your proposal.

Find out who wrote or rewrote your bill. Proposals that don’t succeed may be modified and reintroduced in the next session. Find the legislative staffer that has been working the issue. This guy or gal can be an ally, sharing background, legislative ins and outs, and names of opponents and proponents.

5. Contacts and Networking

Any piece of significant legislation will attract reporters, academics, legislators and staff, advocacy groups, the governor’s office, and others. Get your list started early and keep working it.

6. Get Background on the Leaders

Legislative leaders will decide whether your bill moves forward, gets a hearing, and possibly whether it is approved. Get background on such leaders as the governor, the House Speaker and Senate President, and their top allies like the majority leader and whips. Don’t forget to check out the chief sponsor or cosponsors of your legislation.

Find their party affiliation, major issues, position on your issue, and other history.

7. The Human Angle

Legislative sessions can be routine, except when they’re not. No matter how much you plan you can’t avoid the human angle. A powerful senator suddenly dies, an investigation blows open police corruption, the governor announces she won’t run for reelection.

Read the reporters and keep networking.

8. Committee Chairs

Conduct a background check on the chair of the committee where your legislation has been assigned. It can’t hurt to also learn about the ranking member of the minority party.

9. The Committee Process

States’ committee process varies. For many, once the proposal has been assigned to a committee, the chair will schedule a hearing. Your sponsor will probably lead the charge, officially introducing the bill and bringing in experts to testify. The opponents will do the same.

Several things can happen after the hearing. The proposal could be sent back for changes or amendments. There may be a quick yes/no vote. If the vote is no, the proposal is dead. If the vote is yes, the proposal will be sent to the full House or Senate for consideration.

10. The Floor

The debate before the entire Senate or House is similar to the committee process, though on a larger scale, and without the experts.

Let’s say your bill is passed. Congratulations. Don’t forget, you need to go through the same process in the second chamber. Let’s say that passes. Now it goes to the governor.

11. The Governor

For most states the governor has a deadline to either sign a bill into law or veto it. Some states allow the governor to sign a bill with certain modifications. That could significantly change the intent of your bill.

Let’s say she signs it and leaves it as written. Check with the governor’s office to find when it becomes law. It could be immediately, the next fiscal year, or the next calendar year.

Now’s the follow through. Have opponents pledged to file suit against your law? Do they plan a referendum against it? Might they conduct a counterattack in the next legislative session?

Go back to Step 1.

Burney Simpson covered the Illinois state legislature during the rise of state Sen. Barack Obama and the fall of Gov. George Ryan. He reports on business, urban affairs, and politics.

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