Lawmaking in Massachusetts

Dear Citizen,

One of the most important functions of government is the legislative process. Yet, in many ways, it also appears to be among the most mysterious. The Secretary of the Commonwealth has published - "Lawmaking in Massachusetts" - to help clear up the mysteries and provide you with a basic understanding of how a bill becomes a law, and to explain how you can become involved in the process. It follows lawmaking in our General Court step by step from the initial filing of a bill until the day when the governor signs the bill into law. The legislative process is sometimes frustrating, often rewarding, always fascinating. I hope this publication answers your questions about lawmaking and increases your interest in this essential governmental role.

William Francis Galvin Secretary of the Commonwealth


An Overview

The responsibility for enacting laws in Massachusetts rests primarily with the state legislature, formally known as the General Court. It is divided into two branches: a 160-member House of Representatives and a 40-member Senate. The two legislative branches work concurrently on pending laws brought before them.

Lawmaking begins in the House or Senate Clerk's office where petitions, accompanied by bills, resolves, etc., are filed and recorded in a docket book. The clerks number the bills and assign them to appropriate joint committees. There are 21 of these committees, each responsible for studying the bills which pertain to a specific area (i.e. taxation, education, healthcare, insurance, etc. (see complete list of committees elsewhere in this publication). Each committee is composed of six Senators and eleven Representatives, except for the committee on Transportation which has seven members on the Senate and thirteen members on the part of the House.

The standing committees schedule public hearings for the individual bills, which afford citizens, legislators and lobbyists the opportunity to express their views. Committee members meet at a later time in executive session* to review the public testimony and discuss the merits of each bill before making their recommendations to the full membership of the House or Senate. The committee then issues its report, recommending that a bill "ought to pass" or "ought not to pass" and the report is submitted to the Clerk's office. *An "executive" session in the legislature is not private. The public may observe, but not participate in, these meetings.

The first reading of a favorably-reported bill is automatic and occurs when the committee's report appears in the Journal of the House or Senate Clerk. Matters not requiring reference to another joint House or Senate committee are, following the first reading, referred without debate to the Committee on Steering and Policy in the Senate (except certain special laws relative to a city or town), or placed in the Orders of the Day (the Calendar) without debate, for a second reading in the House.

If a bill affects the finances of the Commonwealth, it is referred to the Senate or House Committee on Ways and Means after the first reading. If the bill involves county finances when reported in the House, it is then referred to the committee on Counties on the part of the House (this rule does not apply to the Senate).

Adverse reports ("ought not to pass") are also referred to the Committee on Steering and Policy** in the Senate or placed without debate in the Orders of the Day for the next session of the House. Acceptance by either branch of an adverse report is considered the final rejection of the matter. However, an adverse report can be overturned. A member may move to substitute the bill for the report, and, if the motion to substitute carries, the matter is then given its first reading and follows the same procedure as if reported favorably by committee. **The Committee on Steering and Policy was established in 1983 to advise the Senate on the order of priorities of the matters referred to it, on the urgency for consideration of such matters, and on alternative methods of responding to such matters. The committee is required to report on the Senate floor on the bills referred to it no later than 30 days after receiving them, and before the last formal sitting of the legislative session.

After a bill takes its second reading, it is open to debate on amendments and motions. Following debate, a vote is taken and if the bill receives a favorable vote by the membership, it is ordered to a third reading and referred to the Committee on Bills in the Third Reading. This amounts to the preliminary passage of the bill in one branch.

That committee examines technical points, as well as the legality and constitutionality of the measure, and ensures that it does not duplicate or contradict existing law. The House committee on Bills in the Third Reading is required to report on any matter referred to it no later than 45 days after receiving it. The committee then issues a report and returns the bill to the respective House or Senate for its third reading. At that time, legislators can further debate and amend the bill. Following the third reading, the body votes on "passing the bill to be engrossed."

The bill must then pass through three readings and engrossment in the second legislative branch. Should that occur, it is sent to the Legislative Engrossing Division where it is typed on special parchment in accordance with the General Laws.

However, if the second branch passes an amended version of the bill, the legislation returns to the original branch for a vote of concurrence in the amendment. If concurrence is rejected, a conference committee consisting of three members from each legislative branch representing both political parties may be formed to effect a compromise piece of legislation. When a compromise is reached, the bill is sent to both legislative branches for their approval. A vote "to enact" the bill, first in the House and later in the Senate, is the final step in the passage of a bill by the legislature.

Following enactment, the bill goes to the governor, who may sign the bill into law, allow it to become law without signing it (if the governor holds the bill for ten days without taking any action while the legislature is in session, it be comes law without his or her signature), veto it, or return it to the legislature with recommended changes. If the legislature has prorogued (concluded its yearly session) and the governor does not sign the bill within ten days, it dies. This is referred to as a "pocket veto." The ten-day period includes every day except Sundays and holidays, and it begins the day after the legislation is laid on the governor's desk.

A bill signed by the governor, or passed by two-thirds of both branches over his veto, becomes a law. It is usually effective in ninety days. The day after the governor signs the bill is considered to be the first day, and each succeeding day, including Sundays and holidays, is counted until the ninetieth.

Laws considered "emergency" in nature take effect immediately upon signing if the legislature has voted to attach an "emergency preamble" to the bill. Adoption of the preamble requires a two-thirds vote of the membership .

The governor may also declare an act to be an emergency law and make it effective at once. A special act takes effect thirty days from the day it is signed, unless it contains a provision to make it effective immediately.