Legislation 101: Your how-to guide

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With Idaho’s 2018 session in full swing, today’s column outlines the stages of legislation and where to find it. Thursday, a glimpse at various types of bills.

It’s easy now with Bill Tracker, yet few voters pay attention to Idaho’s annual legislative session. It’s a shame, because we could actually influence what happens there. I’ve witnessed it.

If you want to follow an issue close to your heart, understanding the process helps. Transforming an idea into potential law is no simple matter. A successful bill risks death at least five times before reaching the governor’s desk.

First, a legislator sets an idea in motion by directing the state’s Legislative Services Office to prepare an “RS” (routing service). Commonly called draft legislation, an RS is not public information until, or unless, “heard” by the appropriate topical committee (e.g., agriculture, education, etc.) of the House or Senate at a “print hearing.” There’s no testimony at this stage; the committee merely considers whether or not to give a bill life.

Which chamber first considers each RS depends on who sponsored it — a House or Senate member. Sometimes legislators seek cosponsors from another political party, to increase chances of success.

Occasionally an RS will have dual cameral sponsors — mirror legislation that (with the exception of tax/revenue bills, which by law can only begin in the House) may be introduced in both chambers at once. Controversial or complex bills may take years of repeat introductions before passing.

An RS gets heard if and when the committee chair decides to set it for a print hearing. Most chairs set them as a courtesy, but not all; sometimes an RS never gets heard, fading to oblivion without so much as a by-your-leave (witness the ill-fated candidate financial disclosure bill). At print hearings, committee members merely vote yea or nay to print (not pass) the bill. Usually they’re printed without much discussion — the time for that comes later — and get a bill number: Four digits for Senate bills, three for the House (e.g., S1211 or HO211).

Now the bill is public information at Legislature.idaho.gov, where you can use the easy Bill Tracker to find and track bills suggested by your interests and follow their progress.

You can also give feedback to your legislators (most useful before a committee or floor vote) via the same site by clicking “Who’s my legislator?”

The next step is the hearing on the merits of the new bill, again by the same subject committee’s simple majority vote. This hearing is the only time the public is allowed to testify in support of, or against, pending legislation. Individual legislators can only introduce bills for a limited time (a few weeks into session); after that RSs can be introduced only via committee.

Assuming it survives that full committee vote, the bill then heads to the floor of the same body (the entire House or Senate), where it waits for a full floor vote. That vote comes at the “third reading” of the bill. For the first two “readings” its text is read (full reading is often waived by two-thirds vote), but not debated — essentially a “heads-up” to lawmakers to research or consider it further.

If it passes the vote at third reading by simple majority, it moves to the other chamber for the same committee and floor vote process (House to Senate, or vice versa). Amendments — an addition or change to the bill’s original text — add further repetitions of committee and floor action (or potential bill death) on both sides.

Once bills pass both chambers, they go to the governor for signature. He can sign the bill into law, ignore it for five days and let it become law, or veto it. A two-thirds vote in each chamber overrides a veto, making a bill law despite the governor’s veto.

Why might a governor choose the second option — doing nothing? To make a statement or reduce political fallout.

Idaho’s legislative committees are much like those in Congress, with both “standing” and “interim” committees on various subjects, but one difference stands out: Ways and Means. In Congress and some states, it’s a money committee. In Idaho, it’s a House committee with three Republicans, three Democrats, and a chair from whichever party controls the House at that time.

More unusual is the topic in Idaho: everything. Ways and Means can hear a bill almost any time, on any subject, contrary to all other committees who have specific subject areas and deadlines for introducing legislation. The result is that Ways and Means can be very powerful and very political late in the legislative process, typically used to put bills on the fast track.

Much more information, including daily progress updates, current law, and past sessions, is available at Legislature.idaho.gov. Legislative Services can also assist those without Internet access at 208-334-2475.

Next time, the six types of Idaho legislation and how to track them.


Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a former registered lobbyist. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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