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The Legislative Process
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How a Bill Becomes a Law in Massachusetts

Lobbying is easy once you’ve learned how the legislative process works! As a bill follows a complicated path through the State House towards passage there are at least four times where YOU can take action and make a difference. Be forewarned: it’s not easy to pass or change laws! Our state constitution, the oldest in the country, makes advocates and lawmakers work hard for change.

First – where do bills come from?

  • Bills are created when social workers, advocates or legislators witness or learn about a problem that needs to be addressed.
  • Writing a bill can be complicated. First you need to look at the language of the current law and figure out what needs to be changed.
  • Next you draft a bill that changes current law or introduces new law. It’s helpful to have an experienced legal eye review your draft.
  • If a legislator is not involved from the outset, you’ll have to find a “sponsor” to sign on as the lead on the bill.
  • Strategically it’s sometimes better to start a bill in the House with a representative as lead; sometimes it’s only a senate bill, or you can have a version in both the House and the Senate. It’s good to get advice from someone with legislative experience to make this decision.

Advocacy Step 1

  • You have your bill! The sponsoring legislator files it with the House or Senate Clerk’s office.
  • It is then assigned to a committee and given a bill number, which is how the bill can be tracked.
  • Every bill must then have a public hearing held by the committee to which it is assigned. (For example, a bill that would provide increased access to mental health care will likely have a hearing before the Mental Health & Substance Use Committee.) All members of the public are invited to give testimony in favor of or against the bill.
    This is the first place YOU come in! You can go to the hearing and testify about why the bill is important to social workers and society, or conversely, why the bill hurts the public or is detrimental to the profession. Testifying on bills is an important step to show legislators there is public support for or against the piece of legislation. Click here to learn more about how to testify.

Advocacy Step 2

  • After a bill is heard in committee the chairperson of the committee decides to report it out of committee favorably or unfavorably… or into a study order. (A study order means the committee would like to continue to review the legislation and does not plan on reporting it out favorably.)
    This is the second place YOU come in! You can lobby members of the committee and the chairperson to report the bill out favorably or unfavorably. Study orders are typically a bad sign – it usually means your bill is dead for the session.
  • If a bill is reported out favorably it may go to another committee, especially if the proposed law will need funding. The Ways & Means Committee or the Health Care Finance Committee are two places where social work bills often go.
  • If a bill is reported out unfavorably it will go to the Floor of that branch for concurrence and if there is no objection it will die on the floor.

Advocacy Step 3

  • Once a bill is reported favorably by the committee it is given its first reading, which could lead to a referral to another committee.
  • Favorable reporting of the next committee then sends the bill to the Floor of the Senate or House Chamber for its second reading. It is subject to debate, amendment, or objections at this time. When a bill “goes to the Floor” it is considered by all representatives or senators.
  • Should legislators vote favorably after this debate, it is sent to the Committee on Third Readings. This committee checks for constitutionality, legality, duplication, or contradiction to existing law.
  • If it passes muster in Third Readings, the bill goes back to the Floor, and is again subject to debate, amendment, or objection. Legislators must vote favorable or unfavorable at this time, for it to be engrossed – which means passed and sent to the other branch for consideration.
  • The second branch has equal opportunity to debate, amend, or object to the bill.
    This is the third place YOU come in! You can lobby committee members and your representative or senator to vote in favor of the legislation on the floor of the House or the Senate. Some bills will be passed in an informal session, which means it is a non- controversial bill and does not require a roll call vote. You won’t need to do much lobbying for these kinds of bills but you want to watch the bill closely to make sure it makes it through without problems. The controversial bills that are heard in formal session usually have larger coalitions behind them or against them and you can take an active role lobbying within those coalitions or individually.

Advocacy Step 4

  • If there are differences in the bill from one branch to the other after engrossment, a Conference Committee is set up to agree to a compromise. Then the bill goes back to its original branch for approval, then to the other branch. No amendments are possible in this final step. After it is enacted in each branch, the bill finally goes to the Governor’s desk. Out of approximately 8000 bills filed each two- year legislative session, only a handful actually make it to the Governor’s desk.
    This is the fourth place YOU come in! If your bill makes it to the Governor’s desk, you can lobby or write to the governor’s staff to support or oppose it. Once the governor makes a decision to sign, the bill becomes law after 90 days. If the governor vetoes the bill, it goes back to the legislature, which can choose to override the veto with a 2/3 majority in each branch.

Lobbying is vital to getting bills passed! Legislators want to hear from you and will only fight for a bill if they know their constituents are behind it. The key is getting up the courage – or feeling the passion – to contact your legislator or a member of a committee to make your voice heard. With training and support from NASW-MA Chapter, you’ll be a pro in no time. Click here for more guidance.

Remember, this is YOUR government so you do have a say and you can make a difference!

How a Bill Becomes a Law in Washington, D.C.

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