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Terms State Legislation Trackers Need to Tackle

Don't let legislative jargon get in your way of being a champion state tracker! See our glossary of tricky terms you'll want to keep in your back pocket.

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What’s the difference between adjourn and adjourn sine die? Sure, you’ve heard of committees, but do you know what committee on committees is? Or an ad hoc committee?

Yes, sometimes tracking state legislation can seem like reading a foreign language.

Further complicating matters, many state legislatures have a jargon all their own. For example, Brenda Erickson, program principal at the National Conference of State Legislatures notes that the name of the legislative branch of government might be Legislature, General Assembly, Legislative Assembly, or General Court.

Even a piece of legislation might be referred to in several ways, she says, including bill, file, or measure.

If you’re new to this game, or just in need of a refresher, here are a few tricky terms you’ll need in your back pocket:

Adjourn Sine Die: To adjourn is to conclude a day’s session with a time set to meet again, or simply to conclude a meeting, but adjourn sine die means to conclude a regular or special session without setting a day to reconvene.

In state legislatures it can be used when terms or mandates are coming to an end, and it is anticipated that the particular body will not meet again in its present session, form, or membership. A legislative body adjourned in this way may be called back into special session, however.

Bumping: No, it’s not the latest dance craze. Instead, according to the Washington State Legislature, it’s a slang term for suspending the rules to allow a bill to be advanced from second to third reading without having the bill revert to the rules committee.

Committee: A committee is a portion of a legislative body charged with examining matters specifically referred to it. But a tracker’s understanding of committees can’t stop there. Legislatures are chock-full of these groups which often decide what bills live or die:

Ad hoc committee: one formed for a short duration, usually to study a specific issue.

Committee on committees: committees that select the chairs and members of standing committees.

Conference committee: A committee composed of members from the two houses specifically appointed to reconcile the differences between House and Senate versions of a bill or bills.

Interim committee: A committee established to study or investigate certain matters between annual or biennial legislative sessions, and to report to the next regular session.

Joint committee: A committee composed of members from both chambers.

Standing committee: A committee appointed with continuing responsibility in a general issue area or field of legislative activity.

Companion bill: That legislation you’re tracking is often not alone. Many bills have companion bills, which trackers should not miss. A companion bill is one introduced in the same form in both the House and the Senate. If you’re tracking one, chances are, you need to be tracking both.

Division: Don’t let the name fool you, there’s no complicated math involved, just an easier way to tabulate a confused vote. When state legislatures refer to division, they mean a method of voting in which members either stand or raise hands to be counted, when the outcome of a voice vote is unclear or in dispute.

Emergency clause: While the legislative process can often be slow and tedious, those for which you are tracking legislation will need to be made aware quickly if an emergency clause is present. It’s a provision in a bill that allows a measure to become effective immediately upon the signature of the Governor.

Quorum: So that bill you’ve been watching is up for vote today, and someone’s waiting for a status check, but you just got word there’s no progress because there’s no quorum. No what? That’s right, legislative bodies need a quorum, meaning when a legislative body is assembled, it’s the minimum number of members required to transact business. According to Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, the “requirement for a quorum is protection against totally unrepresentative action in the name of the body by an unduly small number of persons.”

Quorum call: The method used to establish the presence of a majority for the lawful transacting of business.

Sunset: Knowing when a law becomes effective is extremely important, especially for any compliance impact on affected individuals or entities. But just as important is the expiry date. While many laws are active indefinitely unless a new law is passed to circumvent it, some legislation has what’s called a sunset clause – an expiration date of a measure.

In some cases, a sunset clause can greatly reduce the impact the bill could have on select groups.

For example, several states in 2013 passed laws regulating the administration of biosimilar drugs that would require some highly contested administrative steps for pharmacies. Those included a requirement that doctors be notified by pharmacies substituting a brand name biologic drug with a biosimilar. That could have meant a lot of extra work for pharmacists, except for the fact no biosimilars had even been approved by the FDA for use in 2013, and a sunset clause in many states’ laws was set to expire before any biosimilars were even expected to hit the market.

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