The View from Cheyenne—How a bill becomes a law

 

By Richard Garrett, Jr.

On February 10, the 62nd session of the Wyoming Legislature will convene in Cheyenne. Since 2008, I have attended the Legislature full time representing the members of the Wyoming Outdoor Council and advocating on their behalf.

For this post, I thought it might interest readers to learn a little bit more about the process of how a bill becomes a law and get a glimpse into what it takes to be a legislator.

An Important Time—and Time Well Spent

While some might think the session in Cheyenne is both the beginning and end of the Legislature’s work for the year, that would be a misconception. The session caps a year’s worth—and often more—of sometimes intense, sometimes casual activity.

For almost the entire year legislators put in long hours on behalf of their constituents, many times at great personal sacrifice. It’s easy to estimate that a legislator will spend 1,000 hours or more in a year working to shape and influence Wyoming’s legislative landscape.

The Wyoming Outdoor Council works year round too—and just as tirelessly—to make sure that laws protect our state’s clean air and water, open spaces, wildlife, and healthy communities now and for generations to come.

Our goal always is to develop productive and lasting solutions for managing natural resources through collaborative engagement with stakeholders, decision makers and Wyoming’s elected officials. We’ve been doing this since 1967.

A Framework

The legislative session is all about ideas and the effort to transform those ideas into bills, and those bills into laws. Ideas are born in a number of ways, and gain momentum in a process—one that is well defined by custom, rules, law, and the Wyoming Constitution.

The purpose of this post is to provide a basic (and admittedly simplified) insight into a process that might seem arcane and even convoluted. In truth, the process is well designed to make sure that an idea doesn’t become a law (good or bad) if it has little merit or support.

The Idea

An idea might come from an individual, a group, a business, an association, or even just an individual legislator. However germinated, ideas are the easy part—making ideas into laws requires stamina, willpower, relationship building, and compromise.

Let’s say a legislator is approached by a constituent. That person has an idea that she/he imagines should be a law. The legislator likes the idea—let’s even pretend it’s one that helped him/her win the election. The legislator might email the Legislative Service Office, asking it to research existing law (to make sure something is not already on the books). If it is not, the LSO will draft a bill that conforms to the Wyoming Constitution, which is to say it can’t be more than one subject and it cannot benefit only one person or small group of persons.

Armed with a draft bill, the legislator starts circulating it among fellow friendly legislators, looking to gather support. The legislator also signals an intention to his/her committee—and most importantly its chair—that this idea has become a draft bill, one that the committee should consider.

At this point, the bill is in a critical phase, one of many on its path to becoming a law. If the committee chair declines to let the bill be heard at an interim committee meeting (more on this later), the draft bill will be more difficult to pass since it would have to be an individually sponsored bill rather than one sponsored by a committee. On the other hand, if the chair likes the bill, the chair will direct that it be placed on the committee’s agenda thus enabling it to be heard by as many as 14 legislators (9 House members and 5 Senators) during the interim.

Having reached this perch, the draft bill now has a target painted on it—lobbyists, concerned citizens, state agencies all might be called to comment on the bill. In all probability, like most bills, it’s in for a rough ride.

The Interim

The time between legislative sessions is known as the interim. It is the time when committees meet in various places around the state three or four times to discuss all of the issues/topics that have been assigned to it by the Legislature’s Joint Management Council. Generally, committees are not prohibited from considering anything outside of these assignments.

Fortunately for our draft bill, it is a topic that the committee was assigned to pay attention to by the JMC. Even better, it’s one that the committee chair has become fond of. The draft bill is gaining momentum.

During the first committee meeting of the interim, the bill will be introduced to the committee by its sponsor. He/she will offer compelling reasons for the bill’s adoption, and in support the constituent with the original idea might show up too and testify to the committee. One thing is likely: there will be a lot of people (lobbyists, contrarians, etc.) who will show up too, armed with all kinds of reasons as to why the draft bill should be either amended or killed outright.

With luck, and a little finesse, the committee will vote favorably to hear the bill again at a subsequent meeting. The amendments proposed, if successful, will be incorporated into a second draft of the bill by the LSO, and the bill will be heard again by the committee in another of its interim meetings in a month or two.

If all goes seamlessly, the (second) draft bill will gain the committee’s approval at that next meeting and the committee (on either the House or Senate side) will sponsor it during the Legislature’s next session in the winter of the following year.

(Note, this year the Legislature meets for 30 days in what is known as its budget session. In alternate years the Legislature meets for 60 days. Both are marathons regardless of the number of days.)

The Session

Our little bill is now on the Legislature’s agenda. During the first several days of the session, the Committee of the Whole (the full membership of the house or senate) hears a very brief synopsis of all bills that have been placed on its agenda. They will then vote to affirm that the bill be sent to a committee within the session. During budget years, a bill must achieve a ⅔ vote to be sent to committee (note there are 60 House members and 30 members of the Senate). During alternate years, a bill only needs a simple majority to win assignment.

Committee Meetings

If the bill has been assigned to a committee, it will be placed (or not!) on its agenda by the committee chair.

Once it has been assigned a hearing, the usual suspects—last seen during the interim committee meetings—will show up to sing its praises or bemoan its failings. The committee having heard all this before, is likely to vote its approval of the bill.

That said, if an amendment has changed the bill, it could change its entire prospect for success or failure. A simple change of a word—for example ‘may’ to ‘shall’—can doom a bill.

Another way to kill a bill is to talk about its unintended consequences. A skilled lobbyist might even recommend that the committee ask for an interim study of the bill(!) as a way to kill it. Legislators are generally cautious by nature—they can be very susceptible to these artful persuasions.

If the bill makes it out of committee, it still has a long way to go.

The Committee of the Whole

The bill now goes back to the Committee of the Whole for general debate. It gets three readings each of which is followed by a vote. If it fails a vote, the bill has died. And in all likelihood it died because lobbyists worked hard to kill it. Lobbyists will often work to convince every one of the 60 or 30 legislators to vote ‘nay.’ How do they do this? They make their best quantitative and qualitative arguments, they present facts, they provide additional information and analysis, they might bring constituents to the table, they persuade, cajole, smile, party—whatever it takes to kill a bill. And in all likelihood, there is a cadre of lobbyists on the other side, doing the same things trying to win the bill’s majority support.

If the Committee of the Whole votes in favor of the bill on each of three readings, the bill goes to the other side of the Capitol to repeat the process in front of that side of the Legislature. This is the most straightforward way the full Legislature can pass a bill. There are more complicated ways, to be sure, but we won’t go into them here.

The Signing (or not)

Assuming the bill has survived the tumultuous interim, two or more intense committee hearings, the raucous Committee of the Whole, and has ultimately won the Legislature’s approval, it gets sent to the governor for his/her signature—and it has yet another chance to die.

Once again, lobbyists and citizens on both sides of the issue have been working to convince the governor and the governor’s staff that the best course of action is to either sign the bill into law or to veto it. If the governor does veto the bill, it is dead. At least until the next legislative session.

Summary

There are any number of ways to kill a bill—in fact it is a lot easier to kill one than it is to get it passed.

There are at least 11 distinct steps during the legislative session that must be surmounted for a bill to succeed.

Given that, and the conservative nature of Wyoming’s elected officials, it is a bit surprising that bills ever get passed. And yet they do, in quite astonishing numbers. Generally about 100 bills are signed into law each year (of about 200-600 that have been introduced).

Generally about 20 percent of those bills directly affect the mission of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. So it is crucial, from our perspective, that we maintain our presence in Cheyenne and during the interim. This gives us a chance to positively influence the process, whether we are for or against a bill or for or against amending it in some way. I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to do this work on behalf of our members since 2008.

For more information, please be in touch. And if you can make it to Cheyenne in February, I will be delighted to see you!

And if you’ll be in town, don’t miss our Cheyenne Reception on February 14!

Contact: Richard Garrett, energy policy analyst and legislative advocate, Wyoming Outdoor Council. 307.332.7031 x18, richard@wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org

 

This post is dedicated to my friend Representative Sue Wallis, a tireless legislator who passed away this year on January 28. She served her district since 2007; I am confident that she gave more than 1,000 hours annually to her constituents. Though we did not always agree, I knew Sue to be a person who was “all-in”—she was dedicated to Wyoming, the people she represented, and the people she loved.

 

Note: This version was updated on February 10, 2014 to correct the session number and the date of Representative Wallis’ passing.

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