So many bills, so little time
February 12, 2020
So many bills, so little time. Most veteran lawmakers would agree that the condensed 20-day budget sessions — like the one Wyoming’s 65th Legislature enters into this week — are much more demanding and stressful than the 40-day general sessions.
Despite being only half as long, the amount of work a budget session requires does not drop correspondingly by half. And with time windows closing and deadlines approaching very rapidly, the rapid-fire pace scrambles even the most thoughtful approaches at deliberate scheduling.
The time crunch begins even before the official start of the session. The deadline for approved bill drafts, for example, falls on day three of the session. Seasoned members know this means preparing their bills well in advance.
Newer members, meanwhile, often fall into the trap of waiting until the last minute. The result: many bills aren’t available for review and study until deadline day, often too big of a task for one day, and they die on the vine.
During the 2018 budget session, for example, 204 total House bills were drafted and submitted for introduction. As of this writing — four days before the the 2020 budget session begins — there are only 109 posted bills. This means around 100 pending bills are likely to appear before the deadline of noon on day three of the session. This doesn’t even consider the Senate files that will need review — which will probably total 120 before the deadline.
If it weren’t for House rules that limit individual sponsors to five bills, this flood would no doubt be even more overwhelming. Of course, that limit does not apply to committee-sponsored bills.
Another factor that makes short budget sessions particularly demanding is the fact that bills have to take an extra step in the long winding road to enactment.
Even though a bill has been drafted and approved by the sponsor, in budget sessions it must first be introduced via a voting process. This rule applies to all but the budget bill.
The rationale behind this step is found in the constitutional distinction between a general session and a budget session. Because a budget session’s fundamental purpose is to develop and pass a biennial budget for the state, bills with purposes unrelated to budgeting must overcome an extra hurdle. In theory this ensures the budget receives first priority.
Time, however, has shown that the introduction vote has not worked as it was intended. That’s because the majority of bills easily clear the two-thirds threshold.
But that comes at the expense of a significant chunk of time sunk into the bill introductory process. Between oral explanations, opposition remarks, responses and roll-call votes, the process of introducing a bill eats up about 10 minutes. Mulitply that by the roughly 200 House bills typically introduced, and lawmakers spend 30-plus hours over several days just on introductions.
Because the session calendar mandates that all bill introductions must be completed by day five — or at the time upon which one quarter of the session has elapsed — that doesn’t leave much time for other important agenda tasks.
During the first part of this time span, lawmakers distribute many new bills in final form. It’s a break-neck pace that results in long work days that adjourn hours after the sun sets.
The load effectively precludes much progress being made on the actual budget during these first five days.
Adding to the frustration are the frivolous bills proposed by members seeking media publicity or recognition in their home districts.
Many such bills will long stick in the minds of lawmakers and session observers. There was the 2014 budget session bill that proposed to name the state cookie! Another past bill declared that Wyoming is not a battlefield state. Still another proposed to regulate shopping cart stowage requirements.
Other bills fail introduction because lawmakers anticipate they’ll elicit excessive amounts of debate. Social topics such as the validity of marriage, medical marijuana legalization and second amendment bills are perhaps appropriate in the longer general sessions, but are not well suited to a 20-day budget session.
Even though most of these type of bills don’t pass introduction, the procedure they trigger still eats up a large amount of time early in the session. Those that do pass introduction simply take far too much time as they travel the entire legislative process.
By the end of the budget session, the public and lawmakers usually leave feeling that nonbudget matters consumed too many of the 20 precious days and too few by the budget itself.
Potential remedies for the unmanageable situation come with challenges of their own. For example, waiving the two-thirds vote requirement for committee bills would trim the hours spent on introductions. This, however, could only be accomplished with a change of Article 3 in the constitution, and amending the constitution is appropriately cumbersome.
Changing legislative rules would be easier. Limiting individual House member introductions to five is one example of a rule change that has already borne fruit.
However, even simple changes like this don’t occur easily in the House. They run up against arguments defending “the people’s House” principle — the historic perception that the House is closest to the will of the people. This principle is also the main barrier to leadership screening bills that are of insufficient importance or urgency to merit consideration during a budget session.
Likewise, the notion of judging bills as too time-consuming for a budget session is subjective and therefore not easily fitting a set of rules. In short, there is no self evident method of streamlining non-budget legislation during budget sessions.
Perhaps for these reasons, the biennial workflow deluge that unfolds during budget sessions every even-numbered year is likely to remain an identifying characteristic of legislating in Wyoming.
Michael Madden served 12 years in the Wyoming House as a Republican representative from Buffalo, including seven years as chairman of the House Revenue Committee. He is an economist and holds a doctorate in economics from Iowa State University.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.