With the Denver metropolitan area buried under the snow and facing a blizzard warning, even less than usual will be happening under the golden dome of the state capitol today. This makes it a prime time to review the ground rules for the 2007 regular session of Colorado’s General Assembly, which will convene on January 10 and conclude on May 9, unless all the work is finished early.
While legislators haven’t even been sworn in yet, several important steps in the legislative session calendar have already passed. Almost every step of the legislative process, from the pre-session until May, is carefully scripted with elaborate rules and deadlines not found to nearly the same extent in the U.S. Congress, which has the luxury of conducting business in nearly continuous session, and much more abundant staff resources to accomodate surges in legislative activity.
Committee and Leadership Assignments
The leadership of each party caucus in each house, in consultation with the rank and file members, was elected and assigned committee memberships and leadership posts not long after election results were in. House committee memberships can be found here and Senate committee memberships can be found here.
These decisions will be ratified on the first day of the legislation session.
Some bills are proposed by interim committee that meet between legislative sessions. These bills, because they have been vetted before the session begins, often cruise through the early stages of the legislative process, and aren’t counted against each legislator’s quota of bills.
Complex issues are often referred to interim committees. This year these include committees looking at health care, mental illness in the criminal justice system, police officer’s and firefighter’s pension reform, state and veterans nursing homes, tax increment financing, transportation legislation, water resources, government accountability, homeland security, the budget, and renewable energy.
Interim committee also do sunset reviews of state agencies to decide, for example, if the state should continue to regulate cosmotologists, and review executive branch regulations to determine if any of them should be revoked by the legislature in the next session.
Many of the interim committees manage the internal affairs of the legislature (e.g. the Joint Legislative Computer Management Committee), and produce legislation usually adopted as a matter of course early in the session with little debate.
Choosing The First Three Bills
One of the most distinctive features of Colorado’s General Assembly, which meets for 120 days each year, in addition to any special sessions, is that each legislator may introduce only five bills, in addition to appropriations legislation, and interim committee bills. Leaders grant a few dispensations allowing legislators to file late bills, in addition, each year.
Incumbents had to have their first three bills decided upon by December 1, while freshman legislators had until Friday, December 15, last week. Legislators are allowed only two more bills after this deadline, even if they didn’t introduce their full quota of three bills on time.
Legislators must set their agendas for the session early. And, by the time members of the public have woken up to the fact that the legislature is in session, most legislators have little room to consider new ideas presented to them by members of the public.
Legislators in vulnerable districts are often given important bills that are part of the ledership agenda, and hence likely to pass, to carry, so that they can show that they have accomplished something in the session. More active legislators often try to find less active legislators to carry their ideas in bills.
A key activity in pre-session is choosing an optimal title for a bill. A carefully chosen title can steer a bill to a more friendly committee for initial consideration, which is key, because most bills die in committee. The state constitution’s “single subject” requirement also prohibits amendments outside the scope of the title; only provisions germain to the bill may be added in committee or on the floor of the state house or state senate. Generally, legislators want a title that is as “tight” as possible to ward off efforts of other legislators to hijack their bills for their own ends.
Bills are assigned to a committee in the house of the General Assembly where they are introduced by legislative leaders who usually assign them to a committee with a subject matter that matches the title of the bill. The introduction of a bill and its assignment to a committee is a process known as the “First Reading” of the bill.
Highly partisan bills the leadership determines need to be killed are sometimes instead referred to the State Affairs Committee, which generally dispatches the bill swiftly on a party line vote, often with little discussion. (Of course, some bills, such as decisions on the state bird or the state bureacracy, actually do belong in state affairs in the first place.)
Once the bill topics are chosen, legislators, only a handful of whom are attorneys, work with lawyers in the Legislative Council, and interested parties, to draft the exact language of the bill that will be introduced.
The Legislative Council is the non-partisan professional staff of the legislature, and is primarily concerned with process issues like drafting style, determining the fiscal impact of bills, artfully integrating new ideas into the existing statutory scheme, and keeping track of legislative activity during the session. Discussions between Legislative Council staff and legislators are confidential, unless the legislator involved authorizes communications with someone else.
Legislators usually circulate draft language for any bill of consequence to their inner circle of advisors, to lobbyists and other backers of the bill, and sometimes to potential opponents or impacted parties, in an effort to secure their support before the bill is formally considered by a committee.
First Bill Printing and Fiscal Notes
By Friday, January 5, each legislator must have at least one bill ready for prime time with finalized language in place. Bills then go to the Legislative Council, where they are printed and fiscal notes necessary to comply with the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in the legislative process are compiled.
Any bill with a fiscal note that indicates that it will cost the state money to implement must clear not only a subject matter committee, but appropriations committee review. There is a strong incentive in the process to shunt any implementation cost away from state government and towards the private sector, quasi-governmental enterprises like higher educational institutions outside of TABOR restrictions, or local government.
Fiscal notes, usually based on consultations with senior officials in the impacted departments and guestimates of Legislative Council staff, are as much art as science. If a department is resistant to a bill, or the Legislative Council is skeptical of it (or simply sloppy), it will try to exaggerate its fiscal impact of a bill. Part of the bill drafting process is to attempt to devise ways to minimize the size of the fiscal note it will produce.
A fiscal note indicating that the bill will cost money to implement also postpones a bill to the last month of the session, when appropriations are considered, and delay almost always works against the passage of a bill.
Opening Day and Remaining Bills
On opening day, in addition to quite a bit of pomp and circumstance, the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate each give speeches which lay out their party’s agenda for the legislative session, followed by speeches by their respective minority leaders, who lay out the minority party’s agenda for the legislative session. These speeches establish which bills will receive special favor in the legislative process and set the tone of the session.
The bill that must be finalized by January 5, must be introduced by Wednesday, January 10, the opening day of the legislative session. In addition, bills proposing to increase the number of judges must be introduced by opening day.
State senators have until January 12, the Friday after the session begins, to finalize and introduce their other two pre-session bills. Representatives in the state house have until January 15, the following Monday to finalize and introduce their other two pre-session bills.
January 15 is also the deadline for members to decide on the general ideas behind and start the drafting process for their remaining two bills. Senators have until Friday January 26 to finalize and introduce their last two bills, Representatives have until Wednesday, January 31.
After January 31, three weeks into the legislative session, the time for brain storming and proposing new policies is over. The rest of the session will be spent refining and culling the bills already introduced.
Originating House Process
There are several deadlines in early to mid-February for committees to decide on each of the roughly 500 bills.
In the senate, the deadline for committees to consider senate bills is February 15, in the house, the deadline for committees to consider house bills is February 22.
The average state house committee (other than appropriations) must consider 33 bills in 44 days (including holidays and weekends). The average state senate committee (other than appropriations) must consider 19 bills in 37 days. In addition, every bill that proposes to spend money must go to the appropriations committee of its respective house.
In practice, committees typically consider a few to a dozen bills each time they meet, with a couple of meetings a week generally starting at 1:30 in afternoon and ending when the work is done, sometimes before dinner, sometimes, especially as deadlines approach, late into the night. How late committees meet is often a function of how effective the committee chair is at selecting the right bills at the right time and supervising the debate. Most substantive amendments and wordsmithing of bills takes place in committee, and most bills that don’t ultimately become law die there.
In Colorado, it is customary to allow at least some time for proponents and opponents to testify before the committee on the merits of every bill. Most committees of the General Asembly do little or no work in subcommittees. Live internet audio feeds are available for almost all committee hearings.
Sometimes a bill that lacks support in committee (and less often on the floor of a house of the General Assembly on second reading) will be completely replaced by a “strike below”, which is a substitute bill that is within the scope of the title but usually has a starkly different, or even opposite policy agenda.
Each house usually meets for about two and a half hours each morning it convenes, at least a half an hour of which is consumed with formalities and feel good resolutions.
Bills reported favorably out of committee must then find leadership approval for their consideration on the floor of the originating house.
In the first days of the session, finding time in the schedule for floor consideration of a bill is rarely a problem. Bills introduced later need strong backing of the committee chair, who sets the committee’s agenda, and then must have strong support from legislative leaders, who control when bills are heard on the floor.
The substantive debate on bills reported out of committee takes place during a “Second Reading” which takes place in the “Committee of the Whole.” This is primarily a place where legislators not on the committee who are interested in the bill can provide input, although it is sometimes a place for committee members who lost on a vote in committee to appeal to have that decision overturned on the floor. Unlike the U.S. Congress, at the state level, floor debates are often spontaneous. The public can watch, but not participate in, floor debate. Live internet audio feeds are available to allow the public to hear floor debates from their homes or offices.
Typically, a second reading on a bill can be completed in a few minutes and rarely takes more than an hour. If the bill passes on second reading, it must again secure a scheduled date from leadership for a third reading, at which debate is generally brief, there are generally no amendments, and the bill either passes or fails.
The time elapsed between the second and third reading of a bill allows a legislator to consider his or her second read vote after consulting with an inner circle of advisors and receiving final pleas on the bill as amended from lobbyists.
Bills must receive final passage in their originating house by Wednesday, February 28 this year, 50 days into the 120 day legislative session.
Fast Track Bills
Bills that increase the number of judges in the state must be on the fast track to pass at all. They must pass both the House and the Senate by March 9, and because they involve appropriations, these bills must typically clear both the judiciary committee and the appropriations committee in each house, as well as securing floor consideration on two occassions in each house, and possibly requiring a conference committee.
Also on the fast track is the school funding bill, must must receive final passage by March 16, to allow school districts time to process the results in time to make their own budget decisions and translate that into hiring and firing decisions for district employees.
Second House Process
Once a bill has passed the House it goes to the Senate, and visa versa.
Once interim bills, appropriations bills and special exceptions are added to the nearly five hundred bills introduced by individual legislators, there are nearly six hundred bills to be considered in a legislative session. Ultimately about 430 bills were passed by both houses in 2006, after the Governor’s vetos, 396 became law.
As in the originating house, each bill is initially referred by leadership to a committee in what is known as a first reading.
Thus, each Senate Committee needs to consider, on average, about 30 bills passed in the House, and each House committee needs to consider about 15 bills passed in the Senate.
Committee consideration in the second house must be completed by March 23rd, about three weeks after the last bills were considered in their orginating house, although there is some overlap between consideration originating house bills and second house bills.
This process can be more streamlined than the first round of committee consideration, particularly in a year like this one where the same party controls both houses of the general assembly, because the most problematic bills have already been culled, and much of the wordsmithing will have already been done.
Usually bills are forwarded to the floor of the second house with modest amendments or no amendments at all. The second and third reading process continue in the second house, but again, this tends to be less vigorous than in the first house except on high profile controversial legislation.
Floor consideration of second house bills must be complete by April 2 in the House, and by April 9 in the Senate.
During the last month, i.e. from April 9 to May 9, conference committees resolve disputes between the House and Senate on bills which then go to the respective houses for approval if a resolution is reached, while the appropriations process continues.
Bills that don’t reach resolution until the last minute in conference committee are particularly vulnerable. If they are not passed soon enough, the General Assembly will not be able to consider a veto override if the Governor decides to veto a bill.
The Long Bill and Appropriations
While the legislature does its regular business for the first three months of the session, the Appropriations Committee in each house works on the state budget. In the final month of the session, floor consideration of appropriations and budget bills reaches the floor of each house.
The only bill that can be introduced after January 31, is the “Long Bill” which is the comprehensive state budget bill. It must be introducd in the Senate by March 26, must clear the Senate by March 30, must clear the House by April 6, and must have a final conference committee report approved by April 13.
Formal consideration of the Long Bill is usually preceeded by many months of committee consideration, including deliberations even before the session begins in the Joint Budget Committee which has held hearings this December on the Governor’s proposed budget, culminating in parallel joint caucuses of Republicans and Democrats respectively, for briefings for rank and file legislators on the decisions that were made in preparing the Long Bill.
Appropriations committee bills, which must stay within the parameters of the Long Bill, are considered on the floor in the house where they originate from April 13 to April 20 (although they can be considered sooner as a bill on emergency funding for a state mental hospital for those in the criminal justice system will this year), and in the second house from April 27 to May 2.
The last week of the session is reserved for considering sticky disputes that have lingered in conference committees until the last minute.