Explainer: How a Bill Becomes a Law in the Garden State

Colleen O'Dea | April 1, 2014 | Explainer, Politics
Complicated and sometimes almost contradictory, the path from draft bill to new legislation is long and winding

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No doubt many baby boomers remember “Bill” of Schoolhouse Rock and the catchy tune that taught kids how a bill becomes a law in Congress.

The basic idea is the same in New Jersey, but it’s more complicated than Bill made it out to be in the mid-1970s. New Jersey’s legislative process is governed by more than 60 pages of rules for each of the two houses — the Assembly and the Senate. And there are some political realities that usually aren’t taught — at least not to impressionable children — that can affect what happens in the real world.

What follows are the basic steps of how a bill becomes a law here in the Garden State.

Draft: A legislator with an idea for a new law he or she would like the state to follow, or to change an existing law, asks the staff at the Office of Legislative Services to draft it into a bill. These ideas can be the lawmaker’s own, come from constituents or the governor, or are often suggested by lobbyists or public interest groups. Sometimes they come readymade as drafts from national groups. The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council has dozens of model bills it suggests members introduce in their home states.

Introduce: A legislator and any co-sponsors introduce a bill by giving it to the secretary of the body (Senate or Assembly) where he or she sits. The bill is given a “first reading,” gets a bill number, and becomes public.

Thousands of bills that do not pass get recycled and reintroduced every two years during a new legislative session. They are “pre-filed,” meaning as soon as they do not pass in one year, a legislator gives notice he or she is re-filing them. Some have been kicking around for more than a decade, getting reintroduced every two years and never advancing. In some cases, these are pet projects of a legislator with which few colleagues agree. In others, it’s because the bill sponsor is a member of the political party out of power in that house. Often, identical measures are introduced in both houses by different legislators at the same time.

Committees and hearings: On introduction, the leader of the house typically will refer the bill to a committee. Ideally, the committee will conduct a hearing on a bill, allowing for public input, and call for a vote.

This is the stage that is quite dependent on the committee chairman. The chairman considers issues such as the amount of public input allowed, the number of people who want to speak, the number of other bills on the same agenda, and the priorities of the party in power or the governor.

Some bills are heard by more than one committee. For instance, most of those that seek to spend money are also usually heard by the houses’ budget committees and receive a fiscal note that estimates how much an initiative will cost.

A committee may pass a bill as written, amend the bill, or pass a substantially rewritten substitute for it.

A bill that passes a committee or committees gets sent to the full house, where it moves to the status of second reading and is eligible for a vote. Most bills never even get a hearing in committee, however. The sponsor of a bill that does not get a hearing can after a time request its removal from that committee, but such a motion would need a majority vote of his or her house.

There’s a lot of fuzziness in this part of the process, though.

While a bill that seeks to change environmental protections should go to a house’s environmental committee, the Senate president or Assembly speaker can send it to a different committee if he or she is worried the bill will not make it out of that committee — either because the committee chair does not agree with the bill or is currently having a spat with the house leader. If the membership of the committee is not inclined to pass a bill as written, the Senate president or speaker of the House can appoint substitute members for a specific meeting date who would be more inclined to vote for the measure. Or, the house leader can bypass the committee process altogether and immediately move a bill to second reading.

While a committee may hold a public hearing and listen for hours to public testimony, the final outcome of a bill is often decided behind closed doors, in discussions among legislators, staff, and lobbyists. How committee members vote on important or controversial bills is also often decided outside the committee room — by order of the House leader or the governor.

Floor action: The leader of either house has the prerogative to move a bill to third reading and call for a vote during a full session of the Assembly or Senate. A bill needs only a simple majority to pass — 41 votes in the Assembly, 21 in the Senate. A bill typically can’t go through second and third readings for passage on the same day without an emergency vote, which requires agreement by three-quarters of members — 30 in the Senate, 60 in the Assembly — but it can happen.

During a session of either house, members debate bills and can seek to amend them, though when amendments pass it is usually because they were hammered out behind closed doors with the prime sponsor, legislative staff, leadership, and often lobbyists or other interested parties, as well. Depending on how controversial a bill may be, there can be motions to amend and motions to table those motions. As in Washington, in almost all matters, the majority party rules the day, though unlike Congress, the minority cannot block action or do extended filibustering.

House-to-house reconciliation: Once a bill passes one house of the Legislature, it moves to the other for consideration. Bills that originated in only one House, without a companion bill in the other, typically go through the same process — one or two committee hearings and approvals, then to the floor — unless there is an urgency for passage, and then they might skip the committee process and start on second reading. When identical bills are on parallel tracks in both houses, moving through the process at the same time, one may be substituted for another on the floor of the Assembly or Senate so that the measure can be approved more quickly. If one House changes a bill that originated in the other, it must send the bill back to the originating House for agreement on those amendments. When identical bills are amended differently in the houses, and legislators and staff can’t work out the differences, the bills may wind up being placed for a vote and rejected. It doesn’t happen often, but some bills do fail.

The governor: Once both houses pass a bill, it goes to the governor’s desk. The governor can sign it, conditionally veto it, absolutely veto it, or take no action.

If the governor signs the bill, it becomes law. If he or she conditionally vetoes it, it goes back to the Legislature, which can agree with the changes by a simple majority or seek to override the veto by a two-thirds majority (27 in the Senate, 54 in the Assembly). An absolute veto can also be overridden by a two-thirds majority.

Here is where the minority party wields power. If, as has been the case since 2010, the party in power in the Legislature (Democrats) differs from that of the governor (Republican) and does not have a so-called supermajority, it is powerless to override vetoes, since the governor’s allies won’t support an override.

Finally, if the governor does not take action on a bill within 45 days — or the next day the House where it originated is in session — it becomes law. There are different rules for those bills passed at the end of a two-year session. For instance, if the governor does not sign a bill passed during the last 10 days of the session it is “pocket vetoed” and the Legislature does not get a chance to override it.

Caveat: These rules apply only for bills. There are slightly different rules for constitutional amendments and other resolutions and for nominations.