Understanding the Legislative Process
& Your Key Role in Making it Work
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An estimated 10,000 bills and resolutions are introduced in the average two year term of the Legislature. Approximately 2,500 of those bills will have an impact on the 566 municipalities in the Garden State. The debate in the legislative halls in Trenton, consequently, is of major importance to you, the municipal official.
The Constitution of New Jersey provides that each Legislature convenes for a term of two years beginning at noon on the second Tuesday in January in each even numbered year. The 2011 Legislative Session is the Second Annual Session of New Jersey’s Two Hundred and Fourteenth Legislature. It will be marked by debates over the decennial redistricting, by primary elections in June and by voting to fill every seat in both the State Senate and the General Assembly in November. To make an impact on those vital decisions, local officials must know how the process works, how the League speaks for local interests, and how they can help. You can’t lobby what you don’t know! Stay abreast of the issues through the local media and the League.
Dedicated to the service of your fellow citizens, you, as municipal officials, demonstrate a broad and deep concern for your neighbors and your communities. And, as active members of the League of Municipalities, you show a further commitment to the men and women who similarly serve, all around our Garden State. For that, The League staff thanks you. You help to make both your municipalities and the League positive communities for both the present and the future of New Jersey.
One of the ways you help is in your attention to and action on state legislation. Over the course of a two-year session, thousands of bills are introduced in the New Jersey State Legislature. Of these, hundreds can directly affect your community and your constituents. The League Legislative program exists because of this.
It’s our job.
Your state Legislators may not agree
with you. Different people with different personalities and different backgrounds will inevitably see things from different perspectives. This will produce different conclusions on various issues. And that can lead to one of two things—conflict or communication.
The League exists to communicate. League staff knows that communication involves three components. They need to speak, clearly and forcefully. They need to listen, carefully and compassionately. And they need to think, honestly and objectively, both before and while they speak and while and after they listen.
While you can and do communicate with your own elected State Representatives directly, your League Legislative team keeps you informed about proposals put forward by all our State’s 40 Senators and 80 Assembly Members, as well as by the Governor’s Administration. And, they tell the key policy makers on an issue exactly how you feel about it.
Explaining what they do can be tricky.
How does the Legislative process work? What is the process by which a bill becomes a law? How can you help in the ongoing campaign of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities to defeat bad legislation and encourage the passage of good legislation? Are there any objective standards we can apply to distinguish between the two?
HOW THE LEAGUE’S LEGISLATIVE ACTION TEAM HELPS YOU
The League has six staff members who are registered Legislative Agents. They are Legislative Analysts Lori Buckelew, Mike Cerra and Jon Moran, Staff Attorney Matthew Weng, Assistant Executive Director Mike Darcy and Executive Director Bill Dressel. They monitor the weekly meetings of Assembly and Senate Committees and provide the Committee Members with background on the League’s position on the bills under their consideration.
First, they listen to you. They meet you at the League Conference, they come to your county league sessions, you call or write the office, you send them resolutions you’ve adopted. Also, they read newspaper articles to learn your concerns and opinions and they meet you at various other functions and seminars. Finally, you respond to surveys that they send, from time to time.
The longer they’ve been listening and the better they’ve paid attention, the better prepared they are to recognize proposed legislation that would present you with a problem or an opportunity.
|Executive Director Bill Dressel poses on the steps of the State House with Senior Legislative Analysts Michael Cerra, Lori Buckelew and Jon Moran.
Back at the office, they review lists of bills, recently introduced or amended. They flag those most likely to affect local government. They pull copies of those bills for more thorough analysis. Based on that analysis, they prepare an agenda of bills to take before the League Legislative Committee.
That Committee is composed of over 100 local officials, just like you. In fact, if you can spare one work day a month, six to eight days a year, they welcome you to join that Committee. There you can help your colleagues from all around our state and serve on one of its four subcommittees—Taxation and Finance, Pensions and Elections,
Land Use, Environment and Community Development or General Legislation. Each of those subcommittees has an agenda of 10 to 15 bills, which it studies, debates and votes upon. Then it convenes in the Committee of the Whole, which takes final action on the recommendations of the subcommittees.
After the meetings, your League Legislative Action team returns to Trenton. Based on the Committee’s debates and action, they draft position letters on the various bills. These are sent to sponsors and to any Legislators who could be asked to vote on the proposals. Our Committee actions are also briefly summarized and published in our Legislative Bulletin, which enjoys broad circulation among municipal officials, State Legislators and Executive Branch Officers. Finally, the Legislative Action team reports on several of them in the “Legislative Update” column—a regular feature of the award-winning magazine, New Jersey Municipalities.
Many bills die, each session, with never a debate in any of the various Committees of the New Jersey State Senate and House of Assembly. But more receive attention in
those forums, which represent the best of representative democracy in our Garden State. There, Legislators who have become experts in their committee jurisdictions—Judiciary, Law and Public Safety, Transportation, Local Government, Budget and Appropriations, Insurance, Education, Environment, etc.—listen to arguments for and against passage of scores of proposals, over the two-year session. And whenever they consider a bill on which the League has a position, your League Legislative team will let them know about it. They’ll tell them what your position is and why you’ve taken that position. And often enough, it makes a difference.
That, in a nutshell, is how the League communicates from the local level to the State. But, it also transmits the signals it receives from the State back to you.
The Legislative Bulletin and the “Legislative Update” column in the magazine have already been mentioned. Both serve the important purpose of letting you know about proposed State policies. But when your help is needed on a deadline, the members of the League Legislative Action team rely on their “Legislative Alert” letters, the “Quick Response Hot Line” fax system and the “Legislative e-Line”. They use these tools most often whenever a particularly good bill needs a push and whenever an especially bad bill seems ripe for passage. At other times, they use these tools to inform you of the nature and consequences of new laws or regulations.
So, there we are. Through the League, municipal New Jersey makes its voice heard in our State Capital. Through the League, what’s being said and done in the Capital City is broadcast to you.
So, what do you do with the information you get from the League? How do you put it to its highest and best use?
To help answer those questions, let’s take a look at how the Legislative process works.
HOW THE LEGISLATIVE
First, a bill is introduced. It is sponsored by one or more of the 80 members of the General Assembly or by one or more of our 40 State Senators. It is assigned a number and given first reading. Usually, then, the presiding officer of the House of origin refers it to a Committee for detailed consideration. The presiding officer of the Assembly is the Speaker. The presiding officer of the Senate is the Senate President.
This decision is crucial, because the Committee Chair will decide if the bill will even be considered. He or she cannot assure its passage. But, he or she can assure its demise. So, if the presiding officer wants to see a bill passed, he or she will refer it
to a “friendly” Committee. If not…Well. You get the picture.
|Senator Joseph M. Kyrillos and NJLM Executive Director Bill Dressel pause for a photo at the State House.
More often than not, the Committee eventually schedules the bill for consideration. With several Committees considering multiple bills simultaneously, it’s not always possible for the League’s team of four Legislative Agents to cover them all. But usually on most occasions, and always on the most important bills, they’ll be there. If they can’t be there, they make sure that all the members of the Committee are aware of the League’s position on legislation by giving the Committee Aides League position letters for distribution prior to any vote. And when they are there, often they’re not alone. Both elected and appointed municipal officials from around the State volunteer to testify on matters about which they feel strongly. They keep lists of these individuals, so that they can alert them to impending action on their bills.
These meetings are extremely important. Obviously, a good bill can be defeated and a bad bill passed. But if the League lacks vigilance, a good bill can also be amended to make it less good, or even bad. And a bad bill can be amended to make it even worse. That’s why our Legislative Action staff members need to be there and that’s why local officials with a personal interest so often come to join them. With the League present to argue the local perspective, we’ve often managed to win beneficial amendments to bills that otherwise would have severely hampered municipal efforts to deliver vital life-sustaining and life-enhancing services effectively, efficiently and economically.
But not all of you can come to Trenton. And none of you are expected to be there all the time. But still, there is a way to affect the outcome of these Committee deliberations.
On short notice, League staff can send a fax or an e-mail to you and your colleagues on impending Committee consideration of important bills. You, in turn, can phone your legislators to communicate the League’s position and your own concerns—pro or con—on a particular bill. Time and again, local officials have been highly effective
in promoting and protecting municipal interests in the Legislative arena.
The League presented testimony before Assemblyman McKeon’s Environment and Solid Waste Committee on impediments to shared services and the impact of the pending 2 percent tax levy cap on the Reserved for Uncollected Taxes. Pictured are Anthony Mercantante, Administrator Township of Middletown; Eldridge Hawkins, Jr, Chairman of NJLM’s Management Reform Committee and Mayor of Orange; Greg Fehrenbach, NJLM Interlocal Service Coordinator; and Samir Elbassiouny, Mayor of Washington Township (Warren County).
One of two things happens when a Committee releases (votes out) a bill.
It can be referred to a second Committee. (This happens most frequently on bills that carry an appropriation of State funds.) Alternatively, and most often, it is given second reading in the House of origin. At any time after a lapse of 24 hours following second reading, the presiding officer can call the bill for third reading and final passage. In actual practice, weeks or even months can lapse before the bill is scheduled for debate and a vote. At any time before third reading, the bill is subject to further amendment.
When and if it is finally debated, the bill faces an uncertain fate. It may pass routinely. It may pass on a close vote, after heated debate. Or it may fail to pass. Then, after it has cleared all hurdles in its House of origin, it is sent to the other House, where it must again pass through the Committee process and face its destiny on the floor.
If a bill manages to survive this gauntlet, it goes to the Governor. If he signs it, it’s the law. If he does not sign it, there are, in most cases, three possibilities. First, he can do nothing for forty-five days, if the Legislature has not adjourned, sine die, in which case it’s the law. Second, he can veto it, outright, in which case it goes back to the Legislature where it either dies or gets passed with two-thirds majorities in each House. Third, he can conditionally veto it, and send it back to the Legislature with a statement of his objections and a list of suggested amendments. The Legislature, then, has three options. It can accept and pass the Governor’s amendments, in which case the amended bill becomes the law. It can reject the amendments and re-pass the original version with two-thirds majorities in each House, in which case that’s the law. Or it can ignore the bill completely, in which case it is dead.
It is, as you can see, a long and challenging process. But because of that, it gives interested parties plenty of opportunities to communicate their opinions and influence the outcome. We urge you to seize those opportunities. We urge you to get involved in the debates. Your participation is the key to better public policies for the citizens of our 566 municipalities.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
The League is your League. It speaks on your behalf, and to be effective, it needs you to take an active part. Here are some of the things you can do to help the League help you.
- Read your Legislative Bulletin and file it for future reference.
- Establish a dialogue with your own
senator and assembly members.
- Talk with them or write to them about
the bills that will be good and bad for your town.
- Strongly oppose bills, which:
- Mandate new or increased services at the local level without providing state funding to support them.
- Decrease local tax revenue sources. For example, granting additional exemptions from the local property tax, decreasing state aid programs to municipalities, mandating local policies that should be determined at the local level.
Don’t forget that you are part of the League. When you receive a special alert, follow through on it. If you do not, you may have to live with the consequences.
When you receive notice of a hearing in Trenton, try to have some official in your community come to Trenton to testify.
And most importantly, try to enlist the help of your citizens. As taxpayers, they are the ones who will bear the burden of costly programs mandated by the state. Encourage them to support the League position.
Remember, what happens in Trenton has a very direct bearing on your town and your programs and on your ability to serve your citizens. It is vitally important that the Legislature and the Governor be kept informed of the local viewpoint. There is a lot to be done. Work with your League and through your League, so we can get the job done together.
Veteran journalist, public policy commentator and student of life, Tom Brokow, once said, “It’s easy to make a buck. It’s a lot tougher to make a difference.” On behalf of the people you have sworn to serve, and on behalf of all your colleagues in New Jersey municipal government, thank you for choosing the tougher alternative.
In life, and in government, we all have a choice. We can do the easy thing. Or we can do the right thing. On behalf of you neighbors and their families and on behalf of the future citizens that will make their homes in your municipality, thank you for choosing to do the right thing.
Fifty years ago, a young President marked the passing of “the Torch of Liberty” to a new generation of Americans, and urged his compatriots to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” On behalf of all who will follow you in the public’s service, and all who have come before, thank you for responding to that admonition in your own way and in your own hometown. And thank you for protecting and nourishing the fires of our freedom.
We do most of our work close to home. But duty often calls us to work with our colleagues, who serve at the state level of government. It has been my experience that we can do so most effectively, when we all work together through our League of Municipalities.
These pages provide much of the information that you can use in that endeavor. I sincerely hope that you will use this information to get more involved in the League’s Legislative Action program and in the development of public policy in our State’s Capital.
If I can help in any way, please let me know. And if our League staff can assist you, they stand ready, willing and able.
Here’s hoping for a better year in 2011 and a brighter future beyond.
Very truly yours,
Mayor, Buena Vista Township