As of yesterday, 256 bills have been introduced in the Montana House and Senate. That may seem like a lot, but when it’s all said and done, that number will rise to about 1600.
Many people know how a bill becomes a law because we’ve all seen the old Schoolhouse Rock video, “I’m Just a Bill.” But fewer of us know how a bill actually becomes a bill, how an idea in someone’s head becomes an actual bill on a piece of paper. It usually starts when someone sees something wrong and decides to do something about it. They run to their legislator and ask them to pass a law. If the idea has merit, the legislator requests that a bill be drafted. That sets an entire chain of events in motion.
It all starts in Legislative Services, a department within the legislative branch manned mainly by clerks and lawyers. The bill draft request is first assigned to a drafter who specializes in a given subject. Education bills go to one drafter, energy bills to another and tax bills to yet another. The drafter, usually a lawyer, checks to see if the idea is already covered in existing law. Then they meet with the legislator to understand exactly what they’re looking for. Some legislators start from scratch. Others are moving a successful idea from another state, so they can use that state’s law as a good place to start. Still others use what’s called “model legislation.” We do this a lot. One of our national partners, like Focus on the Family or the Alliance Defending Freedom will identify a problem common to multiple states, such as stopping President Obama’s transgender public schools mandate. They will then develop a piece of legislation that could be tweaked and introduced in several states. Because each state’s constitution is slightly different, the legislation has to be modified to fit.
Once the drafter and the legislator agree on the language, the drafting process moves forward. Depending on the subject and the complexity of the bill, it may go through several revisions before the legislator is comfortable with the final product.
Sometimes legislators come to US with an idea and direct the bill drafter to work with our government affairs team. The legislator, of course, signs off on the final version, but it can be helpful and a better use of their time, to let our people handle the nitty gritty. In addition to fleshing out an idea, the drafter also has to figure out where the bill fits into the Montana Code and which other sections it might affect. It’s a fairly complex process, and it takes time. Drafters rack up lots of overtime when the legislature is in session.
Once the language is finalized, the bill moves on to the checkers, who check it for format, grammar, spelling and punctuation. It’s embarrassing for the public to find a typo in a bill.
After the bill is edited, proofed and in its final form, it’s ready to be picked up and introduced. Sometimes legislators ask other legislators to add their names to the bill. These are called “co-sponsors,” and for a freshman, having the Speaker of the House or Senate President as a co-sponsor, lends a high degree of credibility to your idea.
Once the bill is introduced, it’s off to the races. To understand THAT process, check out “I’m Just a Bill” by Schoolhouse Rock. It’s on YouTube.