Sponsored bills: What are they and why do they matter?

Screenshot 2018-01-08 at 08.10.25By Chris Micheli

To those who are not operating in or around the California State Capitol, “sponsored” bills are relatively unknown, but the media often focus on sponsored bills in a critical manner. To make matters confusing, in Congress, the term “sponsor” means the legislator whose name is on the bill. In the California Legislature, on the other hand, the legislator whose name is on the bill is called the author, rather than the sponsor.

In California, “sponsor” refers to the individual or the group who brought the bill to the legislator who then authors the measure on their behalf. Per the Legislative Counsel’s glossary of terms, “sponsor is the legislator, private individual or group who developed a piece of legislation and advocates its passage.”

What is the criticism of sponsored bills as stated by the media? Their claim is that legislators and legislative staff do not fully understand the contents of a sponsored bill and that the sponsor gets to “call all of the shots” related to the sponsored bill. Worse, the media claim that legislators or their staff do not even have to do any work for a sponsored bill.

It appears that critics of sponsored bills appear to believe that only legislators and their staff should be coming up with ideas for legislation. Or maybe critics believe that only constituents (who may or may not have their own self-interest) should be proposing legislation to their elected officials.

However, nothing could be further from the truth that legislators and their staff do not know the contents of their bills, or defer all decision-making to sponsors. Moreover, criticisms that have been lodged by the media are unwarranted and appear to demonstrate a misunderstanding of the California legislative process.

Legislators often solicit bill ideas from individuals or groups, such as “there ought to be law” contests or other means. And legislators are expected to be responsive to constituents, community groups, or other organizations. All of these are examples of “sponsors” who bring forth ideas for legislation to be considered by the Legislature.

Whether the sponsor brings forth just an idea for a bill, or drafts all of the required language for the bill, is not particularly important as, ultimately, the Office of Legislative Counsel drafts all bills and amendments for consideration by legislators. Nonetheless, the media express concern because the sponsor drafts the bill language and assumes its self-serving nature will be somehow adopted as is.

While bill language will certainly be drafted to implement the desired statutory changes, ultimately the bill’s author decides whether to carry the measure or not and, in the end, the other 119 elected members of the California Legislature, as well as the Governor and members of the general public, all can and do have input into the bill’s language.

Even with a sponsored bill, the author and his or her staff must do a lot of work for the bill, just as if they were the ones who came up with the original idea for the bill. They have to work with Legislative Counsel to draft or revise the bill language and any amendments. They must also develop the bill’s fact sheet (which usually disclosed the bill’s sponsor) and other relevant information to promote to the bill. Even if the sponsor writes initial materials, they are always revised by the author’s staff.

In addition, the author’s staff will complete the committee background materials, write talking points, solicit groups to support the measure, deal with opposition to the bill, work with committee, floor and leadership staff, and advocate for their bill with staff of other legislators in both houses. The bill author’s staff will respond to public and press inquiries, write news releases, and handle all of the necessary paperwork as the bill travels through the legislative process.

Bills as introduced rarely make it through the entire legislative process without getting amended, let alone through one house of the Legislature. As a result, even if the initial bill were drafted by the sponsor, the bill will still need to go through committees in both houses (usually at least four of them), as well as both floors. Again, even if the sponsor drafted the whole bill, 120 legislators are going to review the bill and vote upon it before it even reaches the Governor’s Desk.

In the end, a sponsored bill does not mean the legislator has relinquished control or left “center stage” in the lawmaking process, as some in the media have proclaimed. Remember that the only name on the bill is that of the legislator, who is ultimately responsible to his or her constituents for the content of that bill. The sponsor’s name is not on the bill.

And, by the way, sponsors are always listed on policy committee analyses so that legislators and members of the public know who brought forth the bill to the particular legislator. In California, there is a fair amount of transparency, as opposed to a number of other states that do not even list supporters and opponents of bills, let alone the sponsoring organization or individual. Moreover, it is rare that a bill analysis will not “call-out” a potentially self-serving piece of legislation that benefits the sponsor of that bill.

The other aspect of sponsored bills that is often noted by the media in its criticism is that sponsored bills have a much higher percentage of being enacted than non-sponsored bills do. That statistic can be attributed to the fact that sponsored bills usually have an organized effort behind the measure that may involve grassroots support, a lobbying coalition, media campaign, and other aspects that will have an important impact on whether the bill gets across the finish line of the legislative process.

While accurate that sponsored bills fare better in the legislative process than non-sponsored bills, it is not a negative aspect. Because there is active lobbying in favor of a sponsored bill, that bill should have a higher chance of passing through the process and getting signed into law than a non-sponsored bill.

There are always a handful of legislators who choose not to accept sponsored bills, probably out of concern that he or she will be attacked by the media for doing so. Worse yet, some  special interest groups of their own claim that campaign contributions come along with sponsored bills. Such direct correlation would be illegal. In the end, so long as the sponsor of a bill is publicly disclosed, then elected officials and their constituents know who is behind a particular measure.

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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