The Legislative Process in Massachusetts
This is an explanation of how a bill becomes a law in the Massachusetts state legislature.
Legislation may be filed by members of the House and Senate and by the Governor. The state constitution also allows citizens to ask their legislators to present bills “by request” (these bills do not necessarily have the support of the legislators who file them).
The annual general appropriation act, which originates in the Governor’s office, is filed in the House, which considers it first (Amendment 63 to the State Constitution). “Money bills,” which raise revenue, cannot be considered by the Senate until approved by the House. With those exceptions, any other legislation may be considered first by either branch.
Under Joint Rule 12 of the Joint Rules of the Legislature, the bill filing deadline for legislators is 5:00 p.m. on the third Friday in January of the first annual session of the General Court (legislative sessions, two years in length, begin in the odd-numbered year and end in the even numbered year). The Governor may file legislation at any time.
“Late files” (i.e. bills filed by legislators after the January deadline) require approval by the committees on Rules of the two branches, acting concurrently, and then approval of two thirds of the members of each branch. In practice, the recommendations of the Rules committees are followed.
Once a legislator's bill is filed in the House or Senate Clerk’s office, it is given an initial number (a docket number) and is recorded in a docket book, which lists all bills as they are filed. The House Clerk and Senate Clerk then assign each bill a bill number and recommend the appropriate Joint Committee to hear the bill. Bills that originate in the House begin with “H” and those that originate in the Senate begin with “S.”
Joint Committee Hearing
The list of current Joint Committees can be found on the Massachusetts General Court's website. The Joint Committees must hold a hearing and issue a report on each bill before them. Hearings are open to the public and all interested parties may attend and address the committee. The committee chair may limit the time allowed to individual speakers and/or the time allowed for a particular matter.
Joint Committee Executive Session
At some point after the Joint Committee hears a bill, the committee issues its recommendation. Under Joint Rule 10, Joint Committees are required to report on bills not later than the first Wednesday in February of the second year of the legislative session; however, committees may request and are often granted additional time. The deadline for the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing is later -- the last Wednesday in March.
The committee may meet in an Executive Session open to the public (where only committee members may speak), or it may conduct its business remotely. The committee issues a report to the Clerk’s office recommending that a bill “ought to pass,” (with or without an amendment adopted by the committee) “ought not to pass,” or given a study order.
A study order authorizes the Committee to sit during recess and study this measure and similar ones and file a narrative report of its findings. However, for the vast majority of bills sent to a study order, no further Committee activity takes place.
The Joint Committee may recommend a small number of changes to a bill; in these cases, the Committee’s amendments are attached to the bill and it retains its original bill number. More frequently, the Joint Committee will redraft the bill entirely and this new draft will be assigned a new bill number by the Clerk. Often a Committee will issue a redraft when it has considered several bills on a particular subject and then issues its own preferred version, which may combine provisions from multiple bills.
If a bill receives a favorable recommendation, the bill moves through the legislative process, which involves three occasions (known as "readings") in each branch in which a bill is considered.
This is the first of three mandatory readings in each branch of the General Court. This reading is the account of the Committee Report delivered by the Clerk of the House or Senate. Once a bill receives a favorable report from a committee, it is usually sent to the House or Senate Committee on Steering and Policy or, if it involves state finances, to the House or Senate Ways and Means Committee first.
The Second Reading occurs when the bill is released from Steering and Policy or Ways and Means. It is then placed in the Orders of the Day. At this time, the floor of the chamber is opened for debate on the merits of the bill and proposed amendments. A favorable roll call vote or a voice vote is needed to send the bill to the Third Reading.
After a vote of approval for the bill’s second reading occurs, it is sent to the Committee on Bills in Third Reading to be reviewed. This committee checks the contents of the bill for legal technicalities and proper citations. After the bill is released by this committee it is read for the third and final time in the chamber where it may again be debated and amended.
Once released from the Committee on Third Reading, the bill is brought before the membership for debate and a vote on “passage of the bill to be engrossed.” Once the bill is engrossed, it is sent to the other chamber to repeat the Three Reading process and engrossment.
Both branches must agree on one version of a bill; if there are differences between the House and Senate bills, the measure can't progress to enactment until the same draft is approved by both chambers. The process of reaching agreement may require the work of a conference committee, a temporary body appointed to resolve differences in legislation between the two branches (Joint Rule 11). Conference committees are appointed by the Speaker of the House and Senate President of both chambers and consist of three representatives and three senators, one of whom from each body must be from the minority party.
A conference committee report is then presented to both branches for approval. The House and Senate may either approve or disapprove the report, but may not amend it. In practice, conference committee reports are nearly always approved.
Once the House and Senate pass the same versions of a bill, or have both approved a conference committee report, the bill or conference committee report proceeds to an enactment vote. Some bills, such as transfers of state land and bills pledging the credit of the state (also known as bond bills), require a two-thirds majority of the members in a roll-call vote at the enactment stage.
Following enactment, the bill is sent to the Governor, who may act on the bill in a variety of ways. The Governor may:
- Sign the bill. The bill becomes law after 90 days, unless it contains an emergency preamble, in which case it becomes law immediately, or if the bill includes a specific effective date.
- Veto the bill. The bill is returned to the General Court with his/her reasons for the veto. The legislature may reconsider the bill and can override the veto by a 2/3rds vote in both chambers. The bill then becomes law without the Governor’s signature.
- The Governor may choose not to sign the bill but let it become law anyway. This occurs if he/she holds the bill for ten days during which time the legislature is in session. If the ten day period occurs when the Legislature has concluded its session, the bill becomes law only if the Governor signs it (a rule known as the “pocket veto.”)
- Return the bill to the General Court with recommendation for changes. This action also opens the bill to any additional amendments offered by members (Amendment 56 to the State Constitution). The Legislature can consider the recommendation, but may return the bill without agreeing to the proposed changes. If so, the Governor must sign the bill as is, veto it, or let it become law without his signature. If the Legislature does not act on the Governor’s proposed amendments, the bill does not become law.
- Line item veto. The Governor has this power only with respect to appropriations bills (including bond bills). He or she may veto or reduce the amount of one or more line-item appropriations or may veto outside sections, The vetoes are returned to the Legislature, which can override them with a 2/3rds majority in both chambers.
Any bills that are not passed by the conclusion of the two year legislative session are no longer under consideration and must be refiled in order to be considered during the next session.
Formal and Informal Sessions
The Legislature can meet in either a formal or an informal session. Typically, informal sessions are held each Monday and Thursday, with formal sessions scheduled in addition to or in place of an informal session. The scheduling of informal and formal sessions in each branch is determined by the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate.
In an informal session, no roll call votes are taken. Only non-controversial issues on which no legislator voices disagreement are considered and are approved by a voice vote. If any member objects, the matter or motion does not advance. While no attendance is taken, a handful of members usually attend the session in order to object, if necessary, including a representative of the minority party, a representative of the progressive caucus, and members who anticipate that their bills may be approved during the session.
A formal session considers and acts upon reports of committees, messages from the Governor, petitions, orders, enactments, papers from the other branch, matters in the Orders of the Day and any other issues where public debate occurs and roll call votes may be taken. Under Joint Rule 12A, in the first year of the session, formal sessions end on the third Wednesday in November, and in the second year of the session, they end on July 31.
Effective Date of Legislation
In general, laws that are subject to the Amendment 48 of the State Constitution (which sets out the Initiative and Referendum process) become effective 90 days after the Governor's signature. Laws that are not subject to Amendment 48 become effective 30 days after the Governor’s signature. Days are counted in succession, including holidays and weekends, and acts become effective at 12:01 am on the 91st day (or the 31st day for laws not subject to Amendment 48).
Both the Governor and the Legislature (by a standing vote in each branch) can designate an act as an emergency to take effect immediately. If the Legislature does so (by way of an emergency preamble), the law takes effect when the Governor signs it. If the Governor designates an act as an emergency, the law takes effect when the Governor’s letter of emergency is received by the Secretary of State.
The Legislature can also specify a particular effective date for all or part of a law; for example, it can make an act effective two months or six months or one year after enactment.