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WHAT IS STATE LEGISLATION?/The People and the Process

As in the federal government, the balance of power in state governments is divided between an executive branch, a legislative branch, and a judicial branch. At the state level, the Governor represents the executive branch, and the legislative branch consists of two houses: a State House of Representatives (referred to as an assembly in some states) and a State Senate. Nebraska is the only state where there is a single legislative division.

The number of members in each house, length of terms, and length of sessions vary from state to state. Visit your state legislature's site for more information on the specific make-up of your state legislative bodies.

You can influence public policy by understanding the legislative process and taking action.

You may impact legislation along the way by:

  1. providing information and materials to legislators who will introduce the bill;
  2. testifying at legislative hearings;
  3. contacting committee members before the committee reports;
  4. communicating with your elected officials before a house (assembly) or senate floor vote;
  5. writing to your governor to indicate your position on an act of the legislature; and
  6. submitting comments to the state agency responsible for implementing a new law before the final regulations are published.

You can effectively influence abortion policy in your state. More

The following is an example of the typical path of legislation at the state level.

  > Introduction of Bill > On the Floor
  > Assignment to Committee > "House Of Origin" to the Second House
  > Legislative Hearing > Conference Committee Action
  > Committee Report to the Floor > Governor's Decision

Introducing a Bill

Every bill starts as an idea and must be drafted, sponsored by a member of the legislature, and introduced to the state House of Representatives or Senate. Each side of the legislature may also be generically referred to as a "house" of the legislature, and the State House of Representatives in some states is also called an "Assembly." The first draft of a bill is not voted on upon introduction because the legislative process allows for citizen input regarding the bill. This process begins when a bill is assigned to a committee after it has been introduced.

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Assigning Bills to Committee

After a bill is introduced, it is assigned to an appropriate committee where it is edited and amended by legislators on the committee. Abortion bills often originate from health care or judiciary committees.

Advocates for reproductive choice should note that the most pivotal moment of the legislative process is a bill's consideration at the committee level, where the outcomes of most bills are decided

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The Legislative Hearing

When a committee considers a bill, it may hold a legislative hearing to allow experts and interested parties to provide testimony. Once a hearing is complete and all information regarding a bill has been compiled, members of the committee may then propose amendments that refine or alter a bill. Sections of a bill can even be rewritten in committee before a bill is finally reported on.

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Committee Report to the Floor

The committee can report a bill to the full house or senate with a recommendation that it pass, fail, or report it without recommendation. The committee may also vote to postpone the bill or "kill" the bill without reporting to the legislature, as is the fate of many bills. If the bill is reported out of committee to the full senate or house it will get a "floor vote."

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On the Floor

Once a bill is reported out of committee it goes to the floor of the "house of origin" (i.e., the senate or house, depending on whether the bill was introduced by a senator or a house member). If a bill is on the floor then it is up for debate and possibly amendment by all of the legislators of the respective chamber. Generally, bills are voted on and either approved or rejected at the conclusion of floor debate.

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"House Of Origin" to the Second House

After a bill has been approved by the full house of origin, an official copy of the bill is prepared and forwarded to the other legislative house. There, the bill will undergo the same committee and floor process as in the house of origin. However, the process could yield different results in the second house, creating discrepancies between the bills approved by the two houses.

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Conference Committee Action

The conference committee, made up of three to six representatives from each house (six to twelve total members), is responsible for reconciling the differences between the bills approved by the two houses. If the conference committee can reach agreement on a final version of a bill, then it is reported to each chamber for a final floor vote. Both chambers must then vote to accept the bill as it was drafted by the conference committee before it can be passed on to the state's governor for final approval or veto.

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The Governor's Decision

Despite approval by a conference committee and the body of both houses, a bill does not become a law until the governor of the state has approved it. Once the governor has received a bill, she/he may have several options:

  • The governor can sign the bill into a law effective immediately or at a later date, depending on the state.
  • The governor may express disagreement with the bill by not signing it: in some states it will still become a law after a specified time limit. However, in others, the bill will die as a result.
  • The governor may veto the bill, sending it back to the legislature and giving the two houses the option of revising the bill as suggested by the governor, overriding the veto, or letting the veto stand.

In most states, overriding a governor's veto requires a two-thirds vote by each house. If an override vote is successful then the law is enacted despite the governor's objections.

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