Citizen’s Guide to the Legislature

Contributed by Bill Howley, long-time citizen activist and author of The Power Line blog.

Very few citizens use the WV Legislature. Politicians want our participation in politics to end with voting. Corporate lobbyists know better. They work year round talking with legislators and pushing bills they want passed. Lobbyists are good at using the Legislature.

This is a User’s Guide for the average citizen in West Virginia. I have learned what I describe below over the last five years of direct citizen lobbying for specific legislation at each legislative session.

Let’s start with the tools that are available on the Internet.

  • The calendar for the current legislative session is important, because there are key deadlines and dates that you need to know.
  • You can always look up short biographies and committee listings for any Senator here or any Delegate here. This information is important if you need contact information or come across someone’s name and want to find out more about them.  A complete list of Senators and Delegates from the counties affected by the Freedom Industries spill is available here.
  • You can find out the status of any bill by typing the bill number in the box on this page. The bill status page will tell you where in the process a particular bill might be. You can also click on a link to see the text of the bill.
  • If you know the number of a bill you want to follow, you can add it to your own bill tracking list that will update any new developments with any of the bills you are following. Here is the link to the page where you can create your own bill tracking list. This tracking system is what the lobbyists use during the session.
  • You can also find schedules of committee meeting for the Senate here and the House here. From these pages you can find what bills are on the agenda for a particular committee meeting and where committees are meeting. You can also get audio and/or video links to listen to or watch committee meetings live on the Internet.

 

You can only use these tools effectively if you understand the legislative process. We all know that bills are introduced, go through the committee process and are voted on by each house of the legislature. But it’s not quite that simple.

Bill Introduction and Committee Assignments

Bills are introduced in both the House and the Senate by individual members. These members can seek other sponsors for their bills. Multiple sponsors send a message to other members that a particular bill is supported by more than one member and already has a measure of support at the time it is introduced. The bill’s sponsors send their bill to the legislative drafting office where the bill is reviewed to make sure it is in the proper form. A bill must be given a title that clearly reflects the purpose of the bill.

Every day of the session, almost always from 11:00 a.m. to noon, both houses of the Legislature go into regular session. In these regular sessions, bills are officially introduced, read and reported on, and eventually voted on. A bill is officially introduced when it has been assigned a bill number (three digits for Senate bills and four digits for House bills) and formally introduced in a regular session. Bills are either revisions of existing laws or additions of new laws to the WV Code of statutes, the official listing of state laws.

Once a bill is introduced, the leadership of the house in which it was introduced, led by the Senate President and House Speaker, determine the committees that will have to approve the bill before it can reach the floor in that house’s regular session for a vote. If a bill is assigned to three committees (“triple referenced”) it is clear that the leadership doesn’t ever want this bill to get to the floor for a vote, because it will take much too long to get that bill to the floor for a vote. Most bills are double referenced. A bill that is being fast tracked by the leadership is assigned to only one committee so it can go right to a vote after that committee approves it.

All bills, with a few exceptions, must be introduced by the 41st day of the session.

The Committee Process

West Virginia’s legislative system is dominated by committee chairmen. Chairmen control the passage of bills because a committee cannot vote on a bill unless the chairman places the bill on his committee’s meeting agenda. So if a chairman doesn’t put your bill on his committee’s agenda, the bill will die right there in that committee. Almost all bills must be assigned last to the House or Senate Judiciary Committee before they go to the floor of the Senate or House for a vote. Any bills that have some impact on the state budget must also go through the House and Senate Finance Committees. Double or triple referenced bills always start out in another committee.

A committee chairman can also completely rewrite a bill and introduce a “committee substitute” for the bill with the same number and title. These committee substitutes can actually reverse the original intent of a bill. If a chairman does put a bill on a meeting agenda, then individual committee members can offer amendments that also make changes in the bill. Each amendment must be considered and voted on to be inserted in the bill.

Bills that come before a committee are usually introduced to the committee by the committee’s staff attorney. These attorneys have no expertise in the subject the bill and often do a very poor job of explaining the bill’s impacts to the committee. If a committee chairman knows of other experts on the bill’s subject, he can ask those experts to provide testimony and answer questions from the committee members. Once a bill is introduced in the committee meeting, the chair opens the floor for discussion and amendments. The bill, or the amended bill, is then voted on by the committee. If the bill gains a majority of the committee’s votes, it passes on to the next assigned committee. If a bill fails to win a majority, it dies.

All bills must have passed all assigned committees in their houses of origin by the 47th day of the session. Because the 2014 session started on January 8, this year’s deadline for bills to be out of committee is February 23.

Bills “on the Floor”

Once a bill passes out of all of its assigned committees, it must be “read” on the floor, at a regular session, of its house of origin three times before there is a vote on the bill. After the second reading, under specific procedures, any member of the house of origin can amend the bill “from the floor.” All members of that house must vote on each of these amendments before the bill can complete its third reading and be placed on the regular session agenda for a final vote. Bills are not read in their entirety in these “readings.” Only their titles are read by the Senate President or the House Speaker.

Once a bill is set for a vote, all members vote on the bill. This is often, but not always a formality, because all of the committee maneuvering and amendment discussions have already aligned supporters and opponents of a bill. For most bills, the vote count is usually clear by the time of the vote. In a few controversial cases, there will be speeches from the floor before a vote is taken, and there may be some close votes that no one can call, but these are pretty rare occurrences.

There is one last step before a bill can reach the floor in its house of origin. The bill must be voted out of the Rules Committee of that house. Rules Committees are made up of the leadership of each house, dominated by the Senate President or House Speaker and the majority leaders of those houses. If, for any reason, the leadership wants to kill a bill, perhaps because it has attracted some bad amendments, the Rules Committee simply fails to put the bill on its agenda, and the bill fails to reach the floor of that house before the deadline for all bills to leave their house of origin (the crossover date).

All bills must have had a third reading in their house of origin by the 50th day, this year February 26. This date is called the crossover date, because it is used as the basic deadline for bills to “crossover” from one house to the other.
When a bill crosses over to the other house, the leadership of that house assigns the bill to committees. The bill then passes through these committees in the same way it went through its house of origin. If two similar bills have been introduced in each house, the first one to cross over can be merged into the other bill in the first committee.
If the bill moves through all committees in the second house, it eventually reaches the floor in regular session for a vote. Here the deadline is the scheduled date of adjournment for the legislative session, the 60th day, which is March 8 this year.

Bills tend to back up in both houses toward the end of the session. In the last week, committee meetings and floor sessions are often scheduled in evenings and later into the night. If bills fail to make it to a vote by the end of the session, they die.

How to Use the Legislature

If you are going to use the Legislature effectively, you have to understand these processes. Contacting your own legislator about a bill you support is essentially meaningless unless that legislator is on one of the bill’s assigned committee. Citizens need to follow a bill’s progress through its assigned committees and bring pressure to bear on committee chairmen and committee members at each stage.

First, we need to make sure that the language of the bill itself does what we want it to do. Then, as the bill goes through each assigned committee, we need to contact the committee chairman to pressure him to put the bill on his committee’s agenda for a vote. Once a bill is on a committee agenda, we need to pressure committee members to pass the bill, either unchanged, if we like it, or with our favored amendments.

We need to go through this cycle for each committee the bill passes through in each house. We need to monitor the bill when it reaches the floor to make sure that the floor amendment process works to our benefit. We also have to maintain pressure on the Rules Committees to make sure our bill gets to the floor for a vote. Because the floor vote’s result will already be pretty clear, there is not much reason to try to influence votes on the floor for most bills. If a bill makes it to floor, its chances of passage are usually pretty good.

To be effective, citizens have to be good at monitoring the committee processes and at applying pressure on the right people at the right time. That means we have to follow the bills we want passed and we have to develop communication structures that allow us to generate a lot of phone calls or emails to particular chairmen or committee members at exactly the time when they are considering the bills we want passed. Most important, we must constantly pressure legislators to move our bills through quickly so that they aren’t killed by missed deadlines.

This kind of pressure, applied heavily at exactly the right time is how the various industries that control West Virginia do their work to get the bills they want. We need to develop these skills and abilities if we ever want to change our state for the better.