April 16, 2014

GUEST COLUMN: How the legislature works

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By Terry Macaig and Jim McCullough

The legislature will convene on Jan. 9, 2013 to elect a speaker of the House and president pro tem of the Senate, who presides over the senate when the leuitenant governor is not available. All 150 representatives, 30 senators and state officials, from the governor on down, will be sworn in and the hard work will begin.

The speaker will assign each House member to one of 14 standing committees and the Senate Committee on Committees will appoint each senator to at least two of the 11 standing committees. Half of the committees meet in the morning, the other half in the afternoon. House members have more time to work on bills in detail, as they spend all day in one committee. Senate members divide their time in both morning and afternoon committee sessions.

A group of non-partisan, in-house attorneys, each with specific expertise, is employed by the state as legislative council. They draft bills as requested by representatives and senators. Often a constituent will ask to have a bill introduced. The bill is read for the first time and sent to the committee of jurisdiction in the House or Senate. More than 1,200 bills are introduced during the two-year cycle. The committee will hear from the legislative sponsor of the bill and decide whether to take it up for a full hearing. A bill is almost never voted out of committee in the same form it enters, as people from all sides of the issue have their say and may offer amendments. A legislative council attorney is always present for bill research in the committee, giving legal advice and rewriting the bill as directed by the committee chair.

Once a bill is thoroughly vetted by the committee and voted out, it is sent to the floor of the House or Senate for second reading and vote. If it passes second reading, it is read a third time and voted on. If the bill passes third reading, it is sent to the other body to go through the same process. If both houses agree on the wording, it is sent to the governor for his signature. If there is disagreement between the two houses, then the bill goes back to the committee that started the process. That committee can agree with the other body and send it to the floor for a vote or it can disagree and ask for a committee of conference to be formed to work out the differences. This committee is made up of six members, three each from the House and Senate. If they come to an agreement, the bill is sent back to both chambers for an up-or-down vote without amendment. If the bill passes both chambers, it is sent to the governor for signature. As you can see, this is a lengthy process and few bills make it through the full process each year.

For the most part, polarization and partisan politics are most evident in the House and Senate chambers during debate. Lines in the sand may have been drawn according to political party core values. The “give and take of reasonable people” is more the norm in daily committee action as bills are being discussed. Compromise that Vermonters expect is the author of the final product prior to second reading.

The two weeks before the end of session are quite exciting. Bills that have not moved out of committee are often tacked on to must-pass bills or other ones that have a good chance of passing. If they have not had hearings and been properly vetted, their chances of passage are slim.

Representatives and Senators are elected for two-year terms. They are paid a weekly salary with an allowance for transportation and meals with housing (if they stay in Montpelier) only when the legislature is in session, usually from January to mid-May. They are also paid on a daily basis if their committee or a special committee meets after the session ends. While they may know generally of all bills introduced, they specialize in the bills that their committee is working on. Do not hesitate to ask your legislator the status of a particular bill. They may not be aware immediately but can check with the committee chair or legislative council on it. You can go to the legislative website, http://www.leg.state.vt.us/, to view bills “as introduced,” as well as track their progress. The public is always welcome to sit in on committee meetings and, in most instances, may testify if they request in advance to be on the agenda. There is a huge amount of information available on the website that is well worth becoming familiar with.

An integral part of the Legislature are the legislative pages. Thirty 8th grade students are selected each year from across the state to deliver messages and watch the legislative process. Ten pages each work six-week sessions, live in Montpelier four days a week and get paid for their efforts. We encourage students to apply for this unique experience next summer.

We are continually amazed how long it takes to get things done while, at the same time, how fast things happen. At any given moment, the Legislature is like your best and worst day at university; complete with your best and worst professors. The Legislature works best when you do your civic duty and communicate with your legislator. Good government is a participation sport.

 

Terry Macaig and Jim McCullough are Williston’s representatives in the Vermont House. 


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