By Michael Behm, Senior Vice President
Few other state officials meetings or forums capture the attention – and stimulate the heart rates – of government affairs professionals as does the Council of State Governments’ Committee on Suggested State Legislation. We pour through the Committee Dockets the minute they are released searching for those bills, or that one law, that caused us so much heartburn earlier in the session season and hoping that it didn’t find its way onto the “Committee List.” A flurry of emails begins, conference calls are scheduled and a full-court press of lobbying is launched on the Committee members.
And few other state officials meetings or forums cause so much confusion among so many veteran government affairs professionals and lobbyists. So much talk about “model laws”, the opaque “criteria” the Committee uses to judge the bills on the Docket and an equally mysterious process by which bills land on the Docket.
The Committee is preparing to meet next week again for its 69th year in La Quinta, California, in conjunction with CSG’s Annual Conference, so let’s clear up the confusion and cast some light on the Suggested State Legislation process.
First some history about the Committee. The first annual Suggested State Legislation volume was released in 1941 as a way for state legislators to share ideas to help states advance the war effort – the first volume was entitled A Legislative Program For Defense, in 1942 it was renamed to Suggested State War Legislation and finally in 1947 renamed again as Suggested State Legislation.
Are They Model Bills? The SSL process has evolved since the 1940s as a forum for widely distributing sample bills and enactments to be used by legislators and staff across the country as they develop similar legislation in their own respective states about a variety of public policy issues. Think of the bills and enactments included in the annual volume as legislative templates.
Neither the Committee nor CSG endorses the content of Suggested legislation included in the volume. And Committee members – mostly state legislators and staff, but also Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, Attorneys General and Governors staff – especially loathe calling the included legislation “models” or even the suggestion that they are endorsing these Docket items. That said, once included, these Docket items can carry with them the imprimatur of a widely-respected state officials’ group. Adverse legislation can get as widely distributed around the country as good legislation.
What About The Criteria? Members of the Committee look for unique or innovative legislative examples to include in the annual volume. Bills and enactments are evaluated on established criteria: national or regional significance, timeliness, as innovative approaches to public policy, comprehensiveness and the language or style of the bill – essentially the architecture of the bill. The Members EXPECT arguments for and against “inclusion” to be framed within these criteria and not based on the commonplace policy arguments we typically use as lobbyists.
Should I Lobby The Committee? I am frequently asked if Committee members welcome lobbying efforts – yes, they do. Candidly, Members cannot understand all of the issues before them on any given Docket. There are typically a hundred or more items on most Dockets. However (and it cannot be emphasized enough), these Members expect the lobbying to be respectful of the specific criteria by which they are charged to evaluate the Docket items. Arguing outside of the criteria is almost always counter-productive.
Who Can Vote? All of the Members of the SSL Committee – legislative staff included – have voting rights. But they can only vote to include, defer or reject candidate legislation at this upcoming meeting, based on those very specific criteria. They cannot amend Docket items and they can only vote on items before them (that is, they cannot vote on bills or enactments outside the Docket). And members ALMOST ALWAYS look to enacted Docket items and those bills or enactments with unique features that have not been considered in the past.
How Do The Bills And Enactments Arrive On The Docket? The process is not that mysterious. Bills and enactments are submitted to CSG by the state legislature primarily as a result of a “call for legislation” that CSG makes prior to each meeting. Candidate bills can also be submitted by individual legislators, staff and CSG Associate members. However, nothing prevents the CSG policy task forces from submitting legislation, nor the CSG staff.