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Bills May Die, But Concepts Don’t

by Hugh McQuaid | Aug 7, 2013 9:00am
(3) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Equality, Ethics, State Capitol

Proving again that no bill is ever truly dead during a legislative session, the Legislative Research Office found at least 89 concepts that began life this year in one bill, only to be signed into law under another.

The number comes from an annual bill tracking report which the office puts together after each legislative session. It documents instances when a concept became law in a manner other than the traditional legislative process.

In most cases, a bill is proposed by a lawmaker or committee and assigned a bill number. That bill is given a public hearing and, if the committee approves of it, it’s passed on to one of the legislative chambers. Although legislation is often sent through several different committees before seeing a final vote, it typically retains its designated number.

But the traditional legislative process also comes with a calendar of strict deadlines, including dates by which committees must take action on bills in order to keep them moving forward. Bills will sometimes stall because they lack of support in a particular committee and miss a deadline.

However, the language in legislation a committee declines to pass may later be amended to a generic bill they did pass. Committees sometimes approve “dummy bills,” or pieces of legislation labeled works-in-progress. These bills can be rewritten to include relevant concepts. The Senate president and House speaker have discretion over which bills see a floor vote and what those bills contain.

“It’s sometimes a way of going around the committee process,” Sen. Joe Markley said. “A bill gets resurrected with a new number on a dummy bill and the language gets dropped into it.”

Markley, a Republican from Southington, said he would like to see committees adhere more strictly to the process because lawmakers serving on various committees develop an expertise in those subject areas.

“To take a bill that the committee for whatever reason decided not to act on and pass it, on balance, I think it does more harm than good,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, a Democrat from New Haven, said committee work has value, but it’s often necessary to revive concepts because opinions on issues can change over the course of a legislative session.

“The session is sometimes a living, breathing organism. A concept that does not have support in May might have broad support in June or vice versa,” he said.

There are other reasons why a concept may end up passed under a different bill, Looney said. It is not uncommon for the Senate and House to raise separate bills aimed at the same goal. Sometimes they are consolidated into one piece of legislation and the other is stripped and used for another purpose.

The Legislative Research Office has been publishing bill tracking reports for more than a decade. Although the 2013 session saw 89 concepts find their way into new bills, that statistic is on the low end of a spectrum of recent legislative sessions. For instance, a similar report published after the conclusion of the 2009 regular and special legislative sessions found that 220 concepts were passed under different bills. The governor vetoed three of those bills. That also was the year of the longest budget battle in state history.

This year, the legislature finished its work during the regular session and has not convened for a special session.

But the 2013 session was unique in that it included the passage of a broad piece of legislation drafted in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. That bill, which contained sweeping gun control restrictions, was developed through a bipartisan special committee, independent of the traditional committee process.

The initial bill tracking report did not attempt to account for concepts that were raised in other bills but ended up in that bill. However, the issue illustrates the confusion caused among interested members of the public by deviations from the traditional process.

In March, the Public Safety Committee held a well-attended public hearing on a number of firearm related proposals. More than 100 people signed up to testify in opposition to legislation, and most of them focused their efforts against Senate Bill 1076. The bill was a catch-all piece of legislation and included many of the gun control proposals legislative leaders were considering at the time.

The Public Safety Committee did not pass S.B. 1076 before its deadline a few days later. But elements of the bill, including an expansion of the state’s assault weapons ban, were eventually signed into law as part of S.B. 1160, the legislature’s bipartisan response to the Sandy Hook tragedy.

Looney said there were concepts from more than a dozen bills passed in S.B. 1160. He said passing that omnibus bill saved lawmakers time.

“It was a much more efficient way to deal with a number of different concepts,” he said.

OLR’s annual reports also do not attempt to quantify concepts that were passed into law without ever being raised during the committee process. For instance, this year the legislature legalized Keno, a bingo-style form of gambling. The concept was never introduced as a bill and did not have a public hearing. It was added to the budget to generate revenue just days before the legislative session concluded in June.

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(3) Comments

posted by: Noteworthy | August 7, 2013  9:59am

To clarify Martin Looney’s point - Omnibus bills and other dummy legislation that is passed without hearings, committee work and the like, means that he and Senate Pro Tem Don Williams wield tremendous power. They can craft legislation in secret, insert and drop “concepts” in and the public will rarely know what hit them until after the rest of the dome dwellers vote on legislation they haven’t read, in the middle of the night and then posting how hard they are working.

posted by: Art Vandelay | August 7, 2013  10:06am

Martin Looney is one of the most skilled legislators in the Connecticut Senate.  I’ve watch him on numerous occasions manipulating the legislative process to promote the Democrat Party’s Progressive Agenda. His ability to destroy Republican opposition on the Senate floor is par excellence.

posted by: Matt from CT | August 7, 2013  12:54pm

Sunshine laws don’t function if our politicians treat the process as a game of three card monte.