It has already been a productive legislative session, but negotiations underway have the potential to make it especially significant.
In April, we enacted a transformational set of criminal justice reforms. Last month, we settled a major package to reduce economic inequality — raising the minimum wage, providing paid family and medical leave and also resolving a dispute over the sales tax.
Several measures that have significant resonance in the current national political climate have crossed or should shortly hit the Governor’s desk: Extreme risk protective orders to reduce the risk of gun suicides, automatic voter registration and the repeal of archaic anti-abortion laws.
Another measure that resonates nationally is still up in the air — “safe communities” legislation that would assure that local police focus on maintaining order and protecting residents rather than doing the immigration enforcement work of ICE.
The safe communities measure is pending as part of the state’s budget for fiscal 2019 which is now a couple of weeks late. Talks continue actively on the budget and a resolution may be reached before you read this piece.
What makes the remaining weeks of the session very interesting is the prospect that we may reach agreement on legislation addressing complex ongoing challenges. Both branches have passed complex health care cost control measures. Both branches have passed complex clean energy measures and separate environmental bonding measures. Both branches have passed legislation to update the education aid formula. Both branches will soon have passed legislation to address opiate addiction. There is also some prospect of progress on non-compete agreements and even, perhaps, some abbreviated zoning reforms.
Our rules and traditions require that significant legislation be completed by July 31 of the two year legislative cycle. The legislature does get criticized for leaving big bills until close to that deadline. I agree it is much preferable to do things earlier. On the other hand, there is a legislative dynamic that does tend to drive bill completion towards the end.
The legislature convenes in January after the November elections. It must then organize itself and assign committee chairs and leadership roles. Formal legislative business tends to begin in April. House and Senate chairs of the various joint committees meet and set priorities and begin to conduct hearings and discuss particular legislation.
By February of the second year, committees must make recommendations on most of the bills before them. The spring and early summer of the second year are typically the times of most intense legislative debate as bills move from committees to the legislative floor.
There is nothing stopping committee chairs from releasing legislation in the first year, and often significant legislation is debated in the fall of the first year of the two-year legislative cycle. We were able to do that with our criminal justice legislation. We released it and debated it in the fall and settled the inter-branch differences over the holidays and through the winter.
But we were able to enact criminal justice legislation early only because there was strong leadership consensus after several years of effort that criminal justice reform was ready to move.
On the many issues where there is less leadership consensus, legislative leaders have to struggle to settle the joint agenda and that may ultimately require some implicit or explicit horse-trading across legislative issues. The table is really not set for a final settlement until all the big bills are on the table.
Here’s hoping that the final flurry of negotiation is productive!