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Inside the Capitol, twists and turns lead to the passage of many laws. Photo: <a href="">Holley St. Germain</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Inside the Capitol, twists and turns lead to the passage of many laws. Photo: Holley St. Germain, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

How the $#%@# does a bill become a law in NYS?

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As New York's legislative session wraps up this week, some of the major issues we've been hearing about for the last while remain unresolved, and it's looking like at least some of them aren't going to get resolved in this session.

Of course bills often come together and pass the legislature at the last moment, so what's going to happen in the next couple days is anyone's guess. But how is all of this happening? Turns out it's much more complicated, and less transparent, than what you might remember from Schoolhouse Rock.

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Throughout the session, we often hear about bills in various stages of the legislative process. We know if a bill's passed the Senate it still needs to pass the Assembly (or vice-versa), and we probably know when the bill's close to passage in the second of the those two branches whether or not the governor's planning to sign it. We usually know which bills the governor's really pushing for, and have a few per session in which we're especially interested.

But the road from bill to law is so very complicated, and for all but the most hardcore political junkies some of the process can get lost in the shuffle of politicking that goes along with legislation. It's also worth mentioning that our state's process is not only somewhat less than transparent, it's also widely believed to be one of our nation's most….interesting (not to say corrupt, although a string of recent corruption arrests and this blog post from NPR might.)

Once in a while, the legislative process does find its way into the spotlight (a good example is the NY SAFE Act, which has aroused the ire of many in part because of Gov. Cuomo's use of the "message of necessity" to bring the bill to a vote before the usual three-day "ripening" period. But mostly, it's something we're content to not think too much about (legislation has famously been compared to making sausage.)

So, as the state's legislative session comes close to reaching its end, I decided it was time to bring it, scratching and hissing, into the light. I spoke with Jack McGuire, an associate professor of politics at SUNY Potsdam, about how a bill actually becomes a law in New York state.

The beginning: surviving committee

"You have a legislator, either in the Assembly or the Senate, they submit a bill, in the Assembly it goes to the Speaker and then the Speaker submits it to the committee that has jurisdiction over that particular piece of legislation [like the Agriculture Committee, for example], and then the committee chair makes a determination with the members on the committee, and the majority rules, on whether or not they want to move that particular bill, or they just sit on it and it dies."

McGuire says most bills die, but that's to be expected: "There's somewhere in the order of 10,000 to 15,000 bills in a session that are submitted, so a lot of them are a bunch of baloney." McGuire says introducing bills, even ones that are highly unlikely to pass, can be part of a politician's public relations strategy. It doesn't do a legislator damage to introduce a bill that constituents might really like, and even if it doesn't move forward he or she can give the impression of working hard on an issue.

If a bill has support in committee, it will move forward and maybe get a public hearing where invited guests (experts and so forth) will debate it, and if the committee members like what they hear, they'll vote to move it forward. At this point the bill's still in committee, mind you.

Anyway, if our bill survives committee, it goes back to the legislature. There, it gets "rules" (more on that in a moment) attached to it, and the Senate/Assembly deliberates the bill within the perimeters of those rules, and if they like the bill, they pass it.

Wait, rules?

We call them lawmakers, but rules play a biiiiig role, too. When a bill makes its way out of committee and back into the Assembly or Senate, it gets a number of "rules" attached to it. These, in essence, are the instructions for how legislators debate a bill. What rules get attached to a bill is governed by the Assembly Speaker or Senate President, depending on the house, and rules make a huge difference in what kind of hearing a bill gets: How long can you debate the bill? Will it be an hour or an indefinite period? Can you offer amendments? If so, what kind?

This can make or break a bill in the legislature, and (obviously) can really stifle debate. McGuire says that's one of the troubling things about New York state politics: "There's very little or any deliberation within the visible, public parts of the legislature, like committees…most of it is kept behind closed doors. So not only is deliberation at a minimum in New York, so is transparency."

OK, moving on…So there might be two versions of the same bill.

You hear about this a lot in the political news. But how does it get ironed out? McGuire says, theoretically, the bills would go to a conference committee where members of both the Senate and the Assembly would work together to come up with something that's palatable in both houses. But, he says, that almost never happens in New York. Usually, "it's either the assembly speaker or majority leader…and they hammer it out by themselves, along with, or could be one of their [agents] or a representative from the governor's office, saying what they want." McGuire says that's where the famous "three men in a room" scenario comes into play.

What happens next? Probably, passage

Once the conference committee, or the three men in a room, have come up with a bill they can all live with, it goes back to the Senate and Assembly, where legislators vote on it. And, typically, in New York State, McGuire says they vote yes. "There hasn't been a bill in New York State in, I believe it's a decade, it's at least a decade, where the Democratic Party in the Assembly or the Republican Party in the Senate has been rolled on a bill…If a bill comes up for a vote on the floor in the Assembly, it will pass. They never fail. And that's really quite remarkable."

Why is this a feature of the legislative process in New York? Well, leadership won't ever bring a bill up for a vote unless they know it's going to pass. That's not typical, McGuire says, for states or for the US government.

It's also true because of the tight discipline the leaders of the houses exert on their parties (Republicans have a majority in the Senate, and Democrats in the Assembly). And, McGuire says, they vote "in lockstep." "The speaker," he says, "will seriously take it out on you if you don't vote with the majority."

And finally, the signing

Why wouldn't it be complicated? (Here's a description of the whole bill-becoming-law process from the New York Senate. The signing is at the end.) Here we go:

Now, when the legislature is in session, the governor has 10 days (not including Sundays, of course) to either sign or veto a bill that's been passed in both houses. If he doesn't do either, the bill automatically becomes law after those 10 days.

But if the governor gets the bill when the legislature is out of session (for example, next week), he has 30 days to sign it or veto it, but if he doesn’t do either, it's like he vetoed the bill (this is what's known as a "pocket veto.")

In order to override either type of veto, two thirds of each house must vote to pass it again. And there you go.

Hear Nora's full conversation with Jack McGuire.

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