With two full weeks left in the 2014 session, business in the Capitol is moving ahead at full speed. Any bill expected to have a chance for passage has probably moved most of the way through the process. Right now, I have six bills in the House; some on the floor and some still in committee. In addition to my bills, I’m also handling more than a dozen measures in the Senate for different House sponsors.
Every week, your 8th District office gets phone calls and emails about the status of a particular bill, or even the generic, “Where is the bill on this legislative concept?” questions. Based on some of those conversations, I think it would be helpful to review the legislative process in the Missouri General Assembly.
Prefiled bills in both the House and Senate receive their bill numbers Dec. 1. Because the Senate refers bills in order, many more bills are prefiled in the Senate so they can have lower numbers, and be earlier in line for referral to committee. Senate bills can continue to be introduced until the sixtieth day of the legislative session. This year that deadline was Feb. 27.
The next step for a bill is to be referred to committee. That is done by the President Pro Tem in the Senate and the Speaker in the House. The bill sponsor can request a certain committee, but the final decision is up to the chamber’s leader. Both bodies have rules for how bills are referred, and how quickly.
Once assigned to a committee, the sponsor will request a hearing for the legislation. Each committee chairman has complete control over which bills to hear and in what order. Since time is important, the earlier a bill is heard the better chance it has to complete the whole process. When a hearing takes place, a minimum of 24 hours’ notice is given for supporters or opponents to come testify.
After the hearing, the committee chair will schedule the bill to be heard in executive session, where a vote is held. The vote can be the same day, but most chairs give members at least a week to look at the bill. Often, it is many weeks later, and some bills that get a hearing never get a vote. If the bill receives a majority vote in committee, it is then up to the chair to ask it be reported to the floor. Then the chamber leader (President Pro Tem or Speaker) will call for the bill to be heard on the floor when he is ready.
From there, the Majority Floor Leader will decide when to debate the bill on the floor. All bills originally go on a formal calendar where bills are heard in order. Often, especially later in session, bills are put on an informal calendar. Once there, they can be taken up in any order. The floor leaders control not only what bills are heard, but how much time they get for debate. This process is very different in the House and Senate.
Once up for debate, a bill is first perfected, or reaches the point where no more changes can be made. The perfection vote is usually a voice vote. The next step is to third read a bill, which requires a vote by roll call. If the bill passes the roll call, it is sent to the other body. There, the same process is repeated.
If the other chamber makes changes to the originating chamber’s bill, the sponsor has two options. The first is to accept the changes and take the bill up for one more vote, which will send it to the governor. The second is to take the bill to a conference committee to work out any differences between the bodies. A conference committee is made up of members of the Senate and House. Most conference committees take their lead from the original sponsor of the bill. Once they reach agreement, a final bill is sent back to both chambers for one final vote.
There are many ways to change a bill. In committee, a full bill substitute can be offered or individual amendments can be offered. Once the bill gets to the floor, both substitutes and amendments can be debated and added. The same is true in the opposite body, both in their committee process and on their floor. Those substitutes and amendments can adjust the original language or add brand new sections. With four realistic moments to change a bill, keeping a bill “clean,” with no changes from start to finish, is very rare.
Here is where the process can get tricky. The same exact language can be filed in an original House bill and an original Senate bill. But, through the process, those two bills may become very different pieces of legislation. It isn’t rare at all that an elected official will end up supporting one version, and opposing another.
If a constituent calls or emails our office regarding a specific idea (i.e. Common Core, Medicaid reform) or a specific bill number, the first thing we do is look up the bill(s), find the current status, and do a quick review. Since bills can change quickly, we like to update the constituent. Often, something has changed which gives them pause, or changes their perspective.
I regularly get asked, “Where do you stand on ‘such and such?’” My answer is almost always that I won’t make a decision until the bill is on the floor and has been perfected. Only then can I be sure of the actual language on which I will be voting. While I might support the concept in the legislation, it isn’t until I know the details that I can truly make a choice.
State Senator Will Kraus-R serves District Eight and is a resident of Lees Summit.