What do leaders do once we elect them to office? How can I influence laws and how my elected officials govern?
Elected leaders can do a lot for our communities they represent. Members of our State Assembly and senators create laws that directly address the issues our communities face. “[T]he state legislature is the central place where laws affecting Californians get started and where legislators set the priorities for statewide lawmaking.”
In California, a legislative session is a two-year period during which the bicameral legislature, the State Assembly, and the Senate convene to create new laws. Each year in the session, ideas are drafted into bills, and those bills have deadlines to make it through the legislative process. If a bill clears the legislative process, it goes to the governor’s desk to be signed into law or vetoed. If vetoed, the bill is sent back to the legislature, where a two-thirds vote from both houses, the Assembly and Senate, is required to override the governor’s veto. Within the two-year session, each year starts in January and ends in October.
There are many steps in the legislative process, and a few are where you can advocate for what’s best for you and your community. Here’s a breakdown:
- Bill authoring: This is the first step in the legislative process, when a policy idea gets put down on paper. Legislators will often write policies with the guidance of community groups and leaders.
- This is where you come into play! Meet with your legislator(s) to talk about the issues you care most about and what you’d like your elected official to address in the policies they write. This can be most effective as part of a coalition and/or in partnership with a community group that already champions this issue.
- Bill introduction: This is when a policy idea becomes an official bill for state legislators to consider. Bills are introduced by legislators in the house they serve in; they are named either an AB (Assembly bill) or a SB (Senate bill) and are given a number. No actions from the community can be taken at this step.
- Bill referred to a committee: The rules committee, chaired by leadership in both houses, refers the bill to the most relevant policy committee—such as Education, Health, Environmental Quality, and Public Safety—depending on the issue area of the bill. This typically happens 30 days after the bill is introduced. No actions from the community can be taken at this step.
- Policy committee hearing: The next step in the process is a hearing on the bill. During the hearing, a few key witnesses express their support or opposition to the bill. After the witnesses from the supporting side testify, the hearing is open for public comment in support of the bill. The process then repeats for the opposing side.
- This is where you come into play! A powerful and effective tactic is for advocates such as yourself to “pack the hearing” during the public comment period. Calling in or showing up to express your support or opposition to a bill is a direct way for you to tell your legislator about your community needs and see how they respond. Following the public comments, legislators ask questions, debate, and either vote to move the bill out of the committee, which serves as a stamp of approval, or hold the bill for further deliberation.
- Appropriations Committee: When a bill clears the policy committee, it then moves to the Appropriations Committee, which studies the bill’s fiscal impact. This process takes place mostly behind closed doors, so there are no actions that can be taken from the community at this step.
- Floor vote: Following Appropriations, bills head to a floor vote. Bills are read into the record, and then the final vote takes place.
- Passed to the second house: Once a bill clears all the above steps, it must go to the second house and clear all those same steps in that house.
- This is where you come into play! This is another opportunity for you to provide comments and let your legislator know where you stand on that given policy.
- Concurrence vote: A concurrence vote is a vote of agreement between the two houses that occurs when a bill is significantly amended in the other house. At this point, the bill quickly returns to the house of its origin for a full floor vote on the new amendments. If the amendments are not agreed upon, a conference committee of members from both houses convene to attempt to address the differences.
- Governor’s desk: After the bill passes the Assembly and Senate, it goes to the governor to be signed the bill into law or to get vetoed by the October deadline. If the deadline passes and the governor doesn’t act, the bill automatically becomes a law. If the bills is vetoed by the governor, it is sent back to the legislature, where a two-thirds vote from the Assembly and the Senate is required to override the governor’s veto. In 2021, the state legislature passed 836 bills. Governor Newsom signed 770 (92%) bills and vetoed 66 (8%). The state legislature did not override any of his vetoes. (*)
As you can see, the legislative process is not simple, but we can and should pay attention to what’s happening throughout the legislative session. Lucky for you, there are groups up and down the state that keep you informed about what’s going on and where your support is needed throughout the legislative process. And if you choose to do the research yourself, you can find out what’s happening in the legislative process here, and this free legislative tracker is also super handy.
Understanding the legislative process helps us advocate for bills on behalf of our communities and ensure that our elected officials are representing us—so that we can ultimately hold them accountable to the issues we care most about at the ballot box.
Photo credit: Kyle Smith