Lawmaking in Massachusetts

Participating in the Legislative Process

Massachusetts citizens are permitted and encouraged to take an active role in the lawmaking process of the state legislature. It is a good idea for a person who feels strongly about an issue to present his or her ideas to a Representative or Senator. That person may discover that those concerns have already been formulated into a bill which is awaiting legislative action. If not, the citizen is allowed to file legislation addressing the subject. Massachusetts is one of the few states to allow its citizens to do so. This access is called the "right of free petition."

Although it is not mandatory that a Representative or Senator sponsor a citizen's bill, the rules of the House and Senate provide that a petition must be endorsed for presentation by a member before it can be considered by the General Court. Obtaining the support of individual legislators, then, is most advisable.

Legislation must be filed in either the House or Senate Clerk's office by the first Wednesday in December preceding the first annual session of the two-year General Court. The joint rules, as changed and adopted in 1995, provide that any matter pending before the legislature at the end of the first annual session shall carry over into the second annual session at the same legislative status, except Appropriation Bills recommended by the Governor. Other pieces of legislation that do not have local approval of a city or town and which are filed at any other time would be considered late filed petitions and thus start their course in the respective Rules committees of the two branches. The legislature is elected biennially in even-numbered years.

When a bill is filed, it is recorded in a docket book in the Clerk's office. The book provides the name of the legislator filing the bill, the names of the petitioners, the subject matter of the bill and the number the bill has been given for the legislative session. The books are especially useful when one is trying to locate various pieces of legislation of a similar nature before the Legislative Bulletin is published or the formal listing of all legislation appears in the subject index. (A partial subject index is available in the Clerk's office shortly after all legislation has been filed in the General Court; a more complete version is available usually by mid-year. The "carryover" provisions of pending legislation from the first term into the second annual session became effective with the 1995-1996 session of the General Court.)

The petitioner may want to contact other petitioners whose legislation addresses the same issue as the one in which he or she is interested. Working cooperatively rather than independently can increase the impact of the proponents' arguments.

A petitioner should be well-prepared before testifying at a public hearing. Well organized, well-researched presentation statements naturally have a positive influence on commit tee members. If unable to attend a public hearing, a petitioner should prepare written testimony which can be accepted by a committee before the scheduled hearing.

Petitioners should prepare a summary of the planned testimony and make a number of copies for distribution to com mittee members, staff members and any media representatives present. This allows members to make notes on the testimony while the petitioner is speaking. If the petitioner is serving as a spokesperson for a group, he or she should mention that to the committee prior to testifying. Very often, only written testimony is accepted on refiled bills.

At the conclusion of the presentation, committee members may request further information or clarification. After all testimony is heard, the hearing is complete and the committee will meet, in executive session, either that day or at a later time, to decide whether to issue a favorable or unfavorable report.

The committee report is crucial to the survival of a bill, since the recommendations of all committee reports are generally followed by the legislature.

"Money" bills (bills imposing a state tax) must be first reported in the House. Following the first reading of such a bill it is referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means for further study. Ways and Means issues a report which is sent to the House; the bill is then read a second time and continues through the legislative process. The same procedure is followed when the bill reaches the Senate. Petitioners should remain in contact with the Clerk's office or the appropriate committee to find out when the bill will receive a reading be fore the full body. Petitioners should also try to attend that legislative session so that they can encourage support of legislators to speak in favor of the bill. If the bill survives the debate in the second reading, a vote will be taken "ordering the bill to a third reading," and the process continues as described in Part One.

As the bill continues through the legislative process, the petitioner should work to convince legislators to support it. The survival of any bill depends on continued favorable votes in both branches of the legislature. If the bill passes in both branches, it is sent to the House and then to the Senate for a "vote to enact" the bill. Enactment is usually a formality but it does represent the final passage of a bill by the legislature.

The last step in the process is action by the governor. Letter-writing campaigns and telegrams are often utilized to acquaint the governor with citizen support or opposition.

After the bill is signed by the governor, it becomes law, usually effective in ninety days. However, there may be an "emergency preamble" attached to some laws, making them effective immediately, as explained in Part One.

The process of bringing a bill to fruition as a law in Massachusetts is a long, often tedious, one. However, it is also very exciting and extremely worthwhile. It brings the average citizen of the Commonwealth much closer to state government. And, quite likely, if a petitioner is successful in gaining acceptance for the legislation, that law will be in existence long after he or she and all the legislators who passed it have departed from the scene.