Posted 2/27/12

Lawmaking 101

State House Chamber
Photo by Steve Kotchko

As you’ve probably heard, the Connecticut General Assembly has begun its 2012 session.  It’s a short one.  Under constitutional rules it must end by midnight May 9.  That doesn’t mean there is any shortage of work.  In fact, while the second year of every two-year legislative is short, it also is the election year for lawmakers.  That often “juices” the process, because lawmakers are eager to prove they are “doing things” at the State Capitol.

The urge to “do” is tempered somewhat by the overall legislative rules.  Technically, any lawmaker can introduce any bill in the longer first year of the term, while only committees can “raise” and consider bills in the “short” session.  A second brake is the constitutional decree that in the “short” session, lawmakers are supposed to consider “no business other than budgetary, revenue and financial matters, bills and resolutions raised by committees, and other matters certified in writing (by legislative leaders) to be of an emergency nature.”

While that may sound restrictive—budgets and emergencies—this is a political environment and leaders annually bend the rules to take up whatever they deem necessary to help lawmakers get reelected.

In any case, even though the session is rolling along, you deserve to have input if you are interested in the issues of the day.  That can be done in many ways:  testifying at a public hearing, writing or e-mailing your local lawmakers, and meeting with lawmakers at the State Capitol complex or in the district.

One of the best ways to learn what’s going on in your General Assembly is to go to the general website:   At that site you can find out how to contact your local legislators, check the weekly calendar of the legislature, check the agendas of all legislative committees, and get updates on a bill’s progress.  You can also read a bill online in its entirety, and print out a copy if you choose—though be warned, some of the bills are very detailed and go on for dozens of pages.

If you want to testify at a public hearing, contact the committee that will be handling the bill you are interested in, and be sure you have the correct time and location.  Most hearings are held in the Legislative Office Building near the Capitol, and connected by an underground corridor.

Attending a public hearing can be like getting a cold glass of water tossed in your face.  On controversial bills, the list of speakers can be very long and the hearing may run for hours.  You will be asked to sign a “speaker’s list” and then wait your turn to make your points.
            Be advised that you will not be given the chance to make a long speech.  Most members of the public will be afforded three minutes to make their case.  That means you need to forget about long introductions, detailed personal stories, and lists of complaints.  Instead, be succinct, get right to the point, avoid details mentioned by previous speakers and be respectful to lawmakers.  It’s not that they are demi-gods, but didn’t your mother tell you that you “catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”?

Many public hearing attendees are crestfallen that the committee room was filled with lawmakers at the start of the meeting, but by the time they testified, the committee members had diminished to a precious few.  This is not disrespect; it is a reality of the legislative process.  Most lawmakers serve on several committees and as the day wears on, they come and go to accommodate their legislative work schedule.

You can rest assured that all testimony, from the beginning to the end of the hearing is recorded and later made available to all lawmakers for their use and the conscientious ones actually do go through that material.

Public hearings aren’t the only vehicles for getting your point across to lawmakers.  Be aware that special interests hire lobbyists who spend their entire work week at the State Capitol testifying at hearings, attending committee meetings, and buttonholing key lawmakers—all in the hope of influencing how legislators handle bills.  Some lobbyists want to kill bills, some want them altered, and some want to keep them on the track for final approval.  As long as they register with the state, pay their fees, and wear their blue lobbyist ID badge, their work is perfectly legal.

That doesn’t mean you don’t count.  As a constituent, taxpayer, and especially as a voter, your interest in a particular bill can be important to your local lawmakers.  That is the best place to start.  Your chance of taking your cause directly to a top legislative leader is slim, due to their busy schedules, but unless your local legislator is a do-nothing pol, you should be able to make an appointment to state your case.

In the spring, bills that survive the committee process will be debated and voted on in the House and Senate.  This is a very fluid process.  Some bills that “died” in committee may be “revived” as an amendment to a different bill.  Controversial bills often get stalled on the agenda while the parties involved try to work out a compromise.  If one is reached they can sail through, if not—it’s wait ‘til next year folks.

The final hurdle is the Governor.  Most bills approved by the House and Senate are signed into law by the Governor.  A few are vetoed—usually because of some legal flaw, only occasionally because of philosophical differences. 

I will avoid all the clichés about “democracy in action” or that legislating is “like watching sausages being made”.  The lawmaking process can be messy, frustrating, or exhilarating—depending on your point of view.  However, unlike the gridlock that is Washington—things actually do get done in Hartford every year.

Follow Steve Kotchko on Twitter for news and insider tidbits on politics and government@CRN_News