8 Things to Know about How State Bills Become Law

By Communications Team • May 24, 2021 • 5:36 pm

By Caitlin Smith, Constituency Organizing Manager

As the legislative session winds down, we still have many ways to take action in our home states in the remaining weeks. One hurdle in taking action is understanding the complicated process by which a state bill becomes law. We’ve made it really simple, and broken down the 8 most important things to know about how state bills become law.

1: The path most bills follow in state legislatures to become law is pretty similar

Legislators write bills. Sometimes, they work with multiple legislators to write one bill, and they may seek help from other sources, like non-profits. The legislator (or legislators) then file the bill. After a bill is filed, it can be read by the public and is assigned a bill number.

Bills are then debated and voted on in a committee hearing. To progress, the committee has to vote for it to move to the chamber floor. Once on the chamber floor, there will be more debate. To continue, the bill must then be passed by the chamber (usually by a simple majority).

The bill then “crosses over” to the opposing chamber. For example, a bill that originated and passed in the House then needs to cross over to the Senate. The bill is heard in a committee in the new chamber. Then, if the committee passes the bill it goes to the chamber floor.

If the second chamber passes the bill, it goes to the Governor to either be signed into law or vetoed.

2: Each state process is unique

Every state has their own rules that can change the path a bill takes. For example, some states may require that all bills have floor debate, even if the committee didn’t vote to forward the bill. In other states, you can “pre-file” a bill—meaning you can introduce it before the session starts.

Speaking of session starts, almost every state has different dates for when their session begins and ends—some states don’t even have them every year! (Looking at you, Texas.)

When in doubt, the state legislature website for each state usually has detailed information on their own rules, policies, and dates for legislative sessions.

3: What happens in a committee hearing?

Every chamber has several committees that focus on specific topics. Some common examples include Public Health, Education, and Judiciary. Exact committee names and topics vary by state. Each committee has around 5-10 members. Sometimes, committees have subcommittees with 3-5 members.

When a bill is introduced, it is assigned to the committee in whose topic area the bill falls. Then, the bill is put on the agenda for a committee meeting. Usually, the committee will discuss several bills in one hearing, and they can last hours!

Some hearings allow public testimony—voters, organizations, and the like coming to speak about whether they support or oppose the bill—and sometimes hearings are closed to the public.

In the hearing, the committee might vote to amend the bill, send it to another committee, or forward it to the chamber floor.

Not every bill will have a vote in every hearing; sometimes a committee may decide they need more time to discuss the bill before voting and will have additional hearings on the bill.

4: What do the letters and numbers mean in a bill number?

Every bill number has some letters and some numbers. Let’s use HB 10 as an example.

First, the letters signify the chamber the bill was introduced in. HB 10 would have originated in the House, while SB 10 would have originated in the Senate.

The numbers can have different meanings depending on the state. Sometimes lower numbers signify “higher priority” bills and sometimes it is simply the order the bills were introduced in. In a state where bill number equals priority, HB10 would likely be considered a pretty high priority bill.

5: What happens when a bill passes both the Senate and the House?

When both the Senate and House pass a bill, it goes to the Governor for final action. The Governor has three choices: sign the bill into law, veto the bill, or do nothing.

Every state has different rules on how long the Governor has to take action, and on what “doing nothing” results in. Sometimes not signing means the bill passes into law, and sometimes it results in an automatic veto.

6: Amended bills: Can bills change after they are introduced?

Yes. Any legislator can offer an amendment to an introduced bill, which can then be voted on for adoption to the bill. This can happen at almost any point in the process.

Amendments change the bill; they can be small changes like word choice or grammar correction, or they can be substantial—even completely re-writing the bill. However, amendments have to be voted on wherever they are in the process in order to officially be added to the bill.

6: The governor vetoed! Now what?

After a veto, the bill goes back to the legislature for a possible override. Sometimes both the House and Senate will vote, and sometimes it is only one chamber. Some states require a two-thirds majority vote to override a bill and some states only need a simple majority.

7: Can bills come back from the dead? Are they like zombies?

Yes! Bills can die in lots of ways; committees can vote to “kill” a bill, as can chambers. The bill author can even pull a bill from consideration.

But on rare occasions, bills can come back—even when we think they are dead! The bill could be copied and added as an amendment to another bill. A chamber can vote to consider (and pass) a bill even if a committee votes to kill it.

Glossary:

Amendment: A change to a bill after it has been introduced that must be approved by a majority vote.

Bill: A piece of legislation that may become law

Chamber: A legislature has two chambers: the House and the Senate—except for Nebraska, which has one, known as a ‘unicameral’ legislature

Chamber Floor: The floor is the full chamber, whether that is the House or Senate

Crossover: Crossover is when one chamber passes a bill and it is transmitted to the other chamber to continue the process of becoming law

Dead Bill: A bill that is no longer at risk of becoming law that legislative session, except in rare circumstances

HB: House Bill; letter designation to indicate a bill that was introduced in the House

Legislator: A representative; in the Senate, a Senator and in the House, a House Representative

Legislative Session: The time of year when the legislature is actively considering legislation and can vote for new legislation to become law

Live Bill: A bill that could still become law in the current legislative session

Override: The legislature overrides a veto when enough legislators vote to make a bill law, despite a veto (this usually requires two-thirds of a chamber voting for override)

Prime Sponsor: An original sponsor of the bill; usually one of the bill authors

SB: Senate Bill; letter designation for a bill that was introduced in the Senate

Sine Die: The end of the legislative session

Sponsor: A legislator who joins the authors of a bill in trying to get the legislation passed

Standing Committee: A committee that has the same assigned legislators for a whole session; where most introduced bills are heard

Table: To table a bill is to pause in moving the bill forward in the process to becoming a law

Veto: When the governor signs to stop a bill from becoming law


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