How an Idea Becomes a Law
Paul Heinen, March 27, 2019
As Wisconsin’s Green Fire’s (WGF) Legislative Liaison, I monitor legislative activity and watch for opportunities for WGF to provide information through testimony and comments. Unlike many environmental and conservation organizations, WGF does not actually lobby for law changes. Instead our role is to provide information to legislators and the public about proposed legislation based on science and our professional expertise. Our policy analyses and legislative testimony is at https://wigreenfire.org/our-work/. We have provided input on bills related to wolf management, wetlands, water pollutant trading, and the 2018 lame duck session on government operations.
We are now in the midst of Wisconsin’s legislative session. The Wisconsin State Assembly has an excellent 16 page document on how a bill becomes a law available at https://legis.wisconsin.gov/assembly/acc/media/1106/howabillbecomeslaw.pdf.
After 38 years working the Wisconsin State Capitol on thousands of legislative proposals, I have narrowed the process down to what you need to know for 99% of all bills that pass and become law. We will walk through the process of how a bill starts with an idea, is drafted into a form the Legislature can review, debate and vote on, and the Governor can sign into law. Finally we will look at what state agencies do when they receive a new law, called the administrative rule process.
1. Who can introduce ideas for new laws or to change current laws?
Only a State Legislator can introduce actual language to create a new law or change or modify a current law. Even the Governor must ask a Legislator to introduce their ideas. The Governor’s State Budget is actually introduced by the Legislative Joint Committee on Finance. The Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB) attorneys are the only people who can draft language to be used in a bill, which is why you may hear that a bill “has been sent to drafting.” However, ideas for bills generally come from legislator’s constituents, lobbyists, local government officials, and changes at the federal government level that require state law changes (think the 55 MPH speed limit).
2. How does an idea get drafted into a proposal for a new law?
Once a Legislator decides to introduce a bill they will almost always reach out to affected individuals and groups to ask for input. Legislators want to know what people think about their proposal and if they know that you have expertise, they will often ask what you think. Wisconsin’s Green Fire is asked for information on natural resource and conservation proposals and we offer our expert opinion and professional analysis to the legislator or their staff. Objective and balanced information about a proposal can lead to a bill that has less opposition and that can more clearly solve the problem the bill seeks to address.
Once a Legislator feels that they have a proposal that accomplishes their goal, they will ask the LRB attorneys to draft a bill. At this point the draft bill is confidential and the Legislator may or may not introduce it. If they decide to introduce it they send the confidential bill to other legislators asking if they would like to “co-author” the bill. This is called a “Dear Colleague” letter. There can only be one Senator and one Assembly author on any bill; but all other legislators can be co-authors. This co-author process usually lasts two weeks. Once the author sees how much support the bill has, they send it to the Chief Clerk who gives it a number. So, AB 6 would be the 6th Assembly Bill introduced in any full two year legislative session. SB 66 would be the 66th Senate Bill introduced.
3. Once a bill is introduced, what is the process to pass it?
Once a bill has a number, it is sent by legislative leaders to a committee for further study and debate. This is the most important part of the process. This is where the public and other legislators learn about the issues and share their opinions for and against the bill. Both the Senate and Assembly have separate committees to study and debate bills. Generally bills that Wisconsin’s Green Fire members are interested in go to the Sporting Heritage Committees in both houses and the Assembly Environment and Senate Natural Resources Committees. The state budget is heard and passed by the Joint Committee on Finance.
Each committee chair has a great deal of power at this point in the process. They can elect to hold a hearing and move the bill forward, or not. If there is no hearing, the bill dies. After the chair schedules and holds a hearing, if they don’t like the bill, the bill dies. However, if the chair and a majority of the committee members support the bill, it will be voted on and sent to the full Senate (if it is a Senate Bill) or Assembly (if it is an Assembly Bill).
Leaders in both houses chair the final committee that schedules bills for debate among all the Senators or Representatives. This committee must vote in favor of the bill to get it “on the calendar,” meaning it is scheduled for a date for the full body vote. Whenever the bill passes the first house, it will be sent to the other house to go through the same process. All bills must pass both the Senate and the Assembly.
4.Once a bill passes the legislature, what is the Governor’s role?
When a bill finally passes both houses on a majority vote (50 votes in the Assembly since there are 99 members and 17 votes in the Senate because there are 33 members) it is sent to the Governor for signature. The Governor has three choices. Sign the bill, and it becomes law. Veto the bill and it does not become law. Or, if the bill spends money, the Governor can veto parts of the bill allowing the other parts to become law. Once the bill becomes law, it is referred to as an Act. The Governor then sends the new law to the state agencies that will administer and enforce the law.
5. After a bill becomes law, who makes sure the public understands it and follows that law?
The Governor sends all new laws to the state agencies that administer the law. The agencies then write administrative rules to implement the law and sometimes to interpret for the public what the law means. These administrative rules have the force and effect of law. For example, when you put your recycling out for pick up you are following the administrative rules on how to recycle that were passed to implement the recycling law. The administrative rulemaking process is overseen by the Legislature. There is even a committee, The Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules that deals only with state agency rules.
Paul Heinen is Wisconsin’s Green Fire’s Legislative Liaison.
He served as Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Legislative Liaison for 34 years before leaving to serve that role for the Nature Conservancy of Wisconsin for the last 4 ½ years.