The Basics of the California Legislative Process

By Chris Micheli

For those not fully acquainted with the California legislative process, new laws (called statutes) are enacted by the California Legislature as bills (and signed by the Governor to become laws). The Legislature can also amend or repeal existing statutes. Whether a statute is added, amended or repealed, that process must be done by a bill being passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor (unless he or she allows it to become law without a signature). According to the California Legislature, “the process of government by which bills are considered and laws enacted is commonly referred to as the legislative process.”

A bill must be approved by both houses of the Legislature before it is sent to the Governor for final action. As a bicameral body, the Legislature is composed of the 80-member Assembly and the 40-member Senate. The Legislature meets in two-year sessions. A bill is approved by a policy committee, and often a fiscal committee, in both houses. Once adopted by both houses, the bill is sent to the Governor who may veto it or sign it into law. This process can take a few months, or an entire two-year Legislative Session, or sometimes longer.

Policy committees (to consider the policy impacts of proposed legislation) and fiscal committees (to consider the fiscal impacts of proposed legislation) hear and consider and ultimately vote on legislation after gathering input from interested parties. These bills come from ideas that are put forth by constituents, interest groups, staff, and legislators themselves. Once a legislator decides to author a bill, he or she has the Office of the Legislative Counsel draft the bill for introduction.

Thereafter, the legislator introduces the bill in the Assembly (if an Assembly Member) or in the Senate (if a Senator). It is assigned a bill number and read publicly for the first time. The respective Rules Committee will assign the bill to a standing committee for its consideration. There are a number of methods to track legislation throughout the legislative process. And there are numerous opportunities for members of the public to participate in the legislative process.

Once the Rules Committee has assigned the introduced bill to a policy committee, then the bill is heard in a policy committee and possibly the fiscal committee if there are fiscal implications of the measure. The proper committee referral is based upon the subject matter of the bill and the jurisdiction of the committee(s). At this committee hearing, the author presents his or her bill and the proponents and opponents are permitted to speak at the hearing.

Bills are then considered in the policy committee of the house of origin and, most often, in the fiscal committee. The majority of bills are referred to both a policy and fiscal committee. Once the committee(s) consider the measure, then the bill goes to the floor of the Assembly or Senate and, once passed, must complete the same process in the other house. Throughout this process, there are several opportunities prior to and during these committee hearings for interested parties to express their views on pending legislation.

 Thereafter, the committee members debate the merits of the bill and vote to either pass or defeat the bill. The committee can amend the bill or pass the measure as introduced. Along the way, the bill’s author can also amend his or her bill as necessary. The committee’s staff prepares an analysis of the bill and its impact on existing law.

It is important to express your viewpoints on legislation prior to a committee hearing so that your views can be considered before legislators vote on the bill. They want to hear from constituents and interest groups regarding pending legislation. As bills make their way through the legislative process, they may be amended either substantively or technically. Interested parties can track legislation through the process and determine whether amendments are favorable or unfavorable to one’s position. Those amendments ultimately need to be agreed to by the house of origin before the bill reaches the Governor’s Desk.

Bills are required to be read three times on the Floor of both the Assembly and the Senate. The first reading occurs when the bill is introduced in the house of origin and when it first arrives in the second house. The second reading occurs when it passes out of the first committee, either to another committee (such as the fiscal committee) or to the Floor. The third reading occurs right before the measure is taken upon on the Floor for debate and vote.

The same process occurs in the second houses (i.e., policy committee, fiscal committee, Floor debate and vote). If there were any amendments made in the second house, then the bill must return to its house of origin for a final vote to either accept or reject those amendments. If they are rejected, then a two-house conference committee is convened to resolve the differences. If they are accepted, then the measure goes to the Governor’s Desk.

The Governor generally has 12 days upon which to act on a measure, except for the large volume of bills that are send to his or her desk at the end of the Session. With those bills, usually numbering about 750 measures, he or she has 30 days to sign or veto them. He also has the option to allow a bill to become law without his signature.

Chris Micheli is a Principal with the Sacramento governmental relations firm of Aprea & Micheli, Inc. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor at McGeorge School of Law in its Capital Lawyering Program.

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