Talk to people who have been asked to track bills at the state level and the stories that emerge are similar. There’s usually some mild panic, as images of grade-school civics class and School House Rock bubble up. Then, the search for resources begins with the realization that there’s a heavy learning process ahead.
Read on to learn about the legislative process and download our guide to tracking state bills.
Understanding the Legislative Process
The first thing to do is to understand how bills become laws. Does it really work the way most of us were taught in school or by Saturday-morning cartoons? Yes… and no. We were taught the basics in school, and they generally hold true, both at the state and federal levels. They describe a system free of politics and outside influence in which bills are introduced, debated in committee, passed on the floor of both chambers, and then signed by the executive branch. Unfortunately, we were left to learn the details and complexities on our own, and they change the picture in ways both large and small.
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The system in most states roughly models the federal system, at least in terms of the broad stroke. But the analogy between Congress and state legislatures only goes so far. Every state operates under a different set of rules and procedures, some of which you will need to learn in order to track effectively.
Legislative action is often faster in the states than it is in Washington, and there are many reasons why. Perhaps the most common is that legislative sessions are often short, meaning the time lawmakers and governors have to get business done is compressed. Many states also have legal requirements, such as passing a budget for the year by a certain date. And some have crossover days, a deadline by which one chamber must have a bill passed in order for it to be considered by the other. It all adds up to a faster pace.
State Versus Federal Legislatures
A good starting point to discern the difference between state and federal legislatures is by understanding how they are formed. Members of Congress are considered full-time legislators, and they cannot hold other employment. These lawmakers do their business in a two-year session, which is punctuated by many breaks and recesses. Legislative leaders in the House and Senate control the calendar, which is subject to change throughout the year.
In the states, these things can vary widely. While some states have full-time lawmakers, others have a part-time legislature in which lawmakers serve during session and then return to their professions back home. Some states have lengthy sessions while others meet for only a few weeks or months. Many states can also have special sessions to deal with specific issues.
The fact is that session time means a great deal in the states, because it dictates how much time lawmakers and the governor have to get business done. A short session often means a compressed timeline — and far faster legislative action.
Steps for Tracking State Legislation
When setting out to track state legislation, there are a few steps to take and best practices to follow:
1. Select the Issues You Want to Track
Identifying the issues to track over the state legislative sessions requires perfecting your listening skills. Whether you’re at an association, nonprofit, or corporation, listening to your members, beneficiaries, customers, and employees is a vital step to help you identify and prioritize the most pressing issues.
“Listen to your members, pay attention to your committees, and go on site visits. You never know what issue might pop up,” says Sandy Guenther, manager of state government affairs at the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons (AAOMS). “Then, when a bill gets introduced that you might not have ever had to deal with before, you can at least get a sense of how that might impact them.”
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As government affairs professionals, you aren’t necessarily performing the task of your stakeholders or live their day-to-day life. The relationships you build with them are very valuable when identifying emerging issues and prioritizing what to track.
“Make sure you have at least one person that you can contact on the fly to get feedback,” says Guenther. “Run things off of them, like, ‘I think this is an issue; do you agree, do you not, how could this you know come into play?’ just to get a better sense and be able to see not just micro-targeting but also look at the macro, the entire sphere of what's going on to better understand where you fit in the puzzle.”
2. Identify Your Keywords
Once you’ve heard from your stakeholders and identified the issues you need to track, the next step is building a list of keywords related to all those issues.
“When we switched over to FiscalNote, we had come up with a list of keywords that we needed to stay on top of — general topics or issues. This is based on things we've previously dealt with, things in the news, things that we felt were going to be coming up in the future, and just develop keyword searches to be able to try and pull that information together,” says Guenther.
She recommends fine-tuning your search terms looking to achieve a balance between hyperfocused and general terms. “You don't want to go too narrow because you might miss something but if you go too broad, then you're going to end up overwhelmed with information,” she says. Then, let the alerts come to you via email whenever something related to those keywords pops up.
3. Organize and Categorize
Guenther recommends organizing your keywords by issue and also by importance. Once the alerts start coming in, you’ll be able to determine if it’s something you need to take immediate action on or if it’s an update you have to monitor. A state legislation tracker will allow you to create labels and categories where you can organize and categorize your issues and updates on the legislation you’re tracking.
“It's a hierarchy system you want to try and create. You have your overarching topic, which would be your issue folder, and then we definitely use the labels function in FiscalNote, which is great, and that sort of breaks it down … and then I can report and be able to say ‘ok, we had so many e-prescribing bills introduced, etc.,” she says. “If you're consistent with the way that you organize your information, consistent with the way you tag it or label it, then it's just going to make your life so much easier when it comes time for reporting trying to find like a specific piece of information that you're looking for.”
4. Take Note of Important Dates on Each State
While state legislatures operate following roughly similar guidelines, no legislature is alike. There are state-by-state nuances and variations in how they carry their legislative sessions; for example, most states allow pre-filing but the dates when you can pre-file vary widely between states. Also, a majority of states start their sessions in January but not all and the convene and adjourn dates also differ.
Make sure you have a state legislative sessions calendar handy and highlight the important dates for your strategy. Remember that every state has its own dates for when they convene and adjourn, and these dates are subject to change.
5. Stay One Step Ahead
Because of the fast pace at state legislatures, you can’t afford to take a break. Take the “quiet times” to prepare your strategy and get ahead of upcoming discussions so that when sessions start, you can focus on getting your issues past the finish line faster.
“You really need to think about what issues you might be facing, what crises may pop up, and try to get the legwork done during the quiet times because when the issue is actually introduced or brought before the legislature, you probably won't have time to do all of that work,” Guenther says. “You constantly have to be thinking ahead.”
6. Widen Your Focus and Align Your Issues
It's important to track your own issues, but it's also important to track what else is going on in your particular legislator and even in surrounding states. You’ll want to start identifying media sources that cover your issues immediately. Look to state and local newspapers, blogs, wire services, and television outlets first. Then, look for specialty publications, both in the state and nationwide. See if interest groups — both supporters and opponents — are following the bill and have released analysis.
“Knowing what the priorities of the legislature are and what the state is talking about influences what legislation will ultimately be enacted and thus the likelihood of your issues having legs that year or not,” says Guenther. “You definitely want to try to align your issues with whatever is in the news where you can without seeming too theatrical.”
When tracking state legislation, Guenther relies on FiscalNote State and our keyword discovery tool but she even recommends going one step further to stay on top of everything that’s happening beyond the traditional realm of oral and maxillofacial surgeons.
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“I would also set up a Google alerts for some keywords to keep a sense of what sort of chatter is going on out there. It's amazing if you can pick up on an issue or a news article before it hits the legislature it'll help you be that much more prepared,” she says. “Also, setting up social media having different search terms. Just hearing what people are talking about your group, your company, or members is also very helpful to know where there might be chatter, where issues might be brewing, and be able to prepare for those in advance.”
7. Continue to Track State Legislation Even After Passage
Remember that final passage is not ever the end of a bill’s odyssey. It must be signed or vetoed by the governor, and he or she often has only a set amount of time to act, which varies state by state. The legislature is then generally given a period of time to override the veto, which in some states requires a two-thirds vote of the legislature.
Often, the minute a bill passes and is signed, a court challenge is ready and waiting to go. And those challenges can have a major impact on the law. In some cases, legislation can be voided entirely. In others, pieces of the law may be nullified or changed.
There’s also the implementation of the law to think about. While bills laws are often quite specific in some areas, other areas are often left vague, with lawmakers relying upon state agencies to create regulations that implement the intent of the law. These regulations are rules rather than laws, and they have their own public process.
It’s a lot, right? Luckily, you can automatically track all of these elements, from court challenges to proposed regulation, using tools like FiscalNote State, which saves you time, helps you cut out the noise, stay on top of your issues, and prove your ROI to the larger organization.
Track State Legislation with FiscalNote State
Bill tracking as a DIY effort can only get you so far. FiscalNote State greatly enhances your capabilities to track multiple bills in multiple states in a highly customizable platform, allowing you to search by keywords, focusing on exactly what you want to see, and providing that information in email updates right to your inbox.
“Tracking state legislation I feel becomes more of a fine art than a science. You need to know, ‘if this bill is getting introduced this way it's probably not going to get passed this way’ or ‘this state has the ability to sort of hijack a bill and strip all of your language and put somebody else's in there.’ You have to have in the back of your mind all of these little nuances that can occur in the state because these laws or practices or rules aren't necessarily apples to apples as you go across all 50 states — that can be challenging but it's also makes it a little bit fun and never boring,” says Guenther.
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