Capitol Connection: Understanding the Legislative Process

December 17, 2014

We are just weeks away from the start of the Connecticut General Assembly’s Legislative Session. It’s the time of year when new ideas abound and state lawmakers work furiously to address a wide variety of concerns across Connecticut. While the session can be a busy time, it also follows a very well defined process. Understanding this process is key to understanding how government works – and, more importantly, how we can work together to better Connecticut.

The Basics

The General Assembly is made up of 36 members in the State Senate and 151 in the House of Representatives. The legislative branch also has 27 different committees which lawmakers are appointed to. In my case, I was appointed to serve on the following committees for this session: General Law, Higher Education and Employment Advancement, Legislative Management, and Regulations Review. Each committee is responsible for examining bills in different categories and fine tuning legislative proposals before they make it to the floor of the House and Senate for a vote.

In odd numbered years, like the fast approaching 2015, legislators convene for session from January through early June to propose bill ideas, debate policy changes, and approve new laws. In even numbered years, like 2014, we meet for a “short session” from February through early May. In odd numbered years, the General Assembly is also tasked with creating a biennial budget that will set the financial plan for the next 2 years. So this year, a new budget will be hammered out to cover fiscal years 2015 and 2016 (each fiscal year starts on July 1 and ends on June 30 in the following year).

Budget Business

Addressing Connecticut’s widespread financial problems is clearly a top priority for all lawmakers this year, making the budget process in particular extremely important.

The budget process begins with the governor and the executive branch. He or she collects draft budgets from each state agency, and then works with the administration’s budget office (the Office of Policy and Management) to piece together a statewide plan based on the agencies’ reported needs and projected state revenues. This budget is in the works right now, and will be presented by Governor Malloy to the General Assembly in early February.

In the legislative branch, lawmakers create their own budget which often differs from the governor’s. The Appropriations Committee is responsible for outlining state spending while the Finance Committee handles the tax and bonding proposals. The state is required to balance our books and legally we are not allowed to pass a budget that creates a deficit. Therefore, spending as defined by the Appropriations Committee must be equal to revenue estimates from the Finance Committee. If there are discrepancies, which are always to be expected, state leaders negotiate a budget together with the governor.

Lawmaking Formula

In addition to the budget, the General Assembly also takes on new bill proposals each year. Legislators can propose ideas for new bills, which are then sent to specific committees to debate and refine. For example, let’s say I want to propose a bill that requires school children to have three day weekends every weekend – totally hypothetical! I could propose a bill idea to the Education Committee. Lawmakers serving in the Education Committee would then choose whether or not to debate the bill. If they choose to take up the bill, a public hearing must be held to give the public a chance to comment. Committee members could then make changes to the bill, send the bill over to another committee – such as the Committee on Children – for review, or take a vote on it. If the majority does not vote in favor of the bill, the idea is “killed.” If the majority votes in favor of it, the bill will move on. Then leaders in the House of Representatives and Senate will decide whether or not to take a vote on the bill on the floor of the General Assembly.

If a bill only receives a favorable vote from one chamber, or if the General Assembly runs out of time and the session ends before a vote is taken on a bill, the bill dies. If a bill gets approval from both chambers, it’s off to the governor’s desk. And with a gubernatorial signature – “poof” we have a law.

Phew – I told you the process was quite well-defined!

As the session ramps up, I hope you now have a better idea of what to watch for at the Capitol.