A Primer on the Legislative Process

Charles K. Wake, Esq.

No bills are currently pending in the California Legislature. This installment of the Legislative Corner will therefore be devoted to providing a synopsis of the legislative process. After all, if you want to affect the laws that we deal with daily, it is probably good to know how those laws are enacted. Only then will you know when in the process, you can effectively intervene.

The California State Legislature is made up of two houses: the Senate and the Assembly.  There are 40 Senators and 80 Assembly Members representing the people of the State of California.  The Legislature meets in a two-year sessions corresponding to the California election cycle.  The Legislature is currently in recess after conclusion of the 2015-2016 regular session.  The Legislature will not reconvene for the 2017-2018 regular session until January 4, 2017.

Almost all laws begin as bills introduced in regular session in either the Assembly or the Senate. If an Assembly Member or a Senator wants to introduce a bill, he or she first sends an idea for a new law to the Legislative Counsel where it is drafted into a bill. The bill is then returned to the Legislator for introduction. If the author is a Senator, the bill is introduced in the Senate. If the author is an Assembly Member, the bill is introduced in the Assembly

A bill is introduced, or "read," for the first time when the bill number, the name of the author, and the descriptive title of the bill are read on the house, either Senate or Assembly, floor.  The bill is then sent to the Office of State Printing.  No bill may be acted upon until 30 days has passed from the date of its introduction.

The bill then goes to the Rules Committee of the house of origin. The Rules Committee assigns the bill to the appropriate committee for its first hearing. Bills are assigned to policy committees according to subject area of the bill. For example, a Senate bill dealing with health care facilities would first be assigned to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee for policy review. Bills that require the expenditure of funds must also be heard in the fiscal committees: Senate Appropriations or Assembly Appropriations. Each house has several policy committees and a fiscal committee. Each committee is made up of a specified number of Senators or Assembly Members.

Each house maintains a schedule of legislative committee hearings. Prior to a bill's hearing, a bill analysis is prepared that explains current law, what the bill is intended to do, and some background information. Typically, the analysis also lists organizations that support or oppose the bill.

During the policy committee hearing, the author presents the bill to the committee and testimony can be heard in support of or opposition to the bill. Letters of support or opposition are considered and can be quite influential depending on the source. For instance, positions taken by the Legislative and Amicus Brief Subcommittee of Los Angeles County Bar Association's ("LACBA'") family law section have historically been considered carefully because LACBA is the largest voluntary bar association in the State of California. However, letters of support or opposition must be received before a scheduled hearing. Contacting the bill's author, counsel for the policy committee considering a particular bill, and any other interested groups is also helpful.

After considering a proposed bill, the policy committee then votes by passing the bill, passing the bill as amended, or defeating the bill. Bills can be amended several times. It takes a majority vote of the full committee membership for a bill to be passed by the committee.

Bills passed by committees are read a second time on the floor in the house of origin and then assigned to a third reading. Bill analyses are also prepared prior to the third reading. When a bill is read the third time it is explained by the author, discussed by the Members and voted on by a roll call vote.

Bills that require an appropriation or that take effect immediately, generally require 27 votes in the Senate and 54 votes in the Assembly to be passed. Other bills generally require 21 votes in the Senate and 41 votes in the Assembly. If a bill is defeated, the Member may seek reconsideration and another vote.

Once the bill has been approved by the house of origin it proceeds to the other house where the procedure is repeated. If a bill is amended in the second house, it must go back to the house of origin for concurrence, which is agreement on the amendments. If agreement cannot be reached, the bill is referred to a two house conference committee to resolve differences. Three members of the committee are from the Senate and three are from the Assembly. If a compromise is reached, the bill is returned to both houses for a vote.

If both houses approve a bill, it then goes to the Governor. The Governor has three choices. The Governor can sign the bill into law, allow it to become law without his or her signature, or veto it. A governor's veto can be overridden by a two thirds vote in both houses. Most bills go into effect on the first day of January of the next year. Urgency measures take effect immediately after they are signed or allowed to become law without signature.

Bills that are passed by the Legislature and approved by the Governor are assigned a chapter number by the Secretary of State. These Chaptered Bills (also referred to as Statutes of the year they were enacted) then become part of the California Codes.


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