State Legislative Process

The Wisconsin legislative process was designed to be deliberative, which normally provides ample time and opportunity for input by all the public and individual legislators and for deliberation by both legislative bodies, consideration by the governor, and legislative oversight of implementation of legislative enactments.

The process begins with the introduction of a bill by a legislator in one of the two houses of the legislature, the State Assembly or the State Senate.  Often a bill will have numerous co-sponsors and many times identical bills, so-called companion bills, will be introduced in both houses.

When a bill is introduced, it has its first reading and is referred to a committee which has jurisdiction over the subject matter of a bill.  The committee will hold one or more public hearings on the bill and receive comments and suggestions from members of the public, lobbyists representing persons or groups with an interest in the bill, even from representatives of the Executive and Judicial branches of government.  The committee will discuss the bill, most often in executive session (which is subject to Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law), and may take either no action or recommend possible amendments and/or passage of the bill.

After the committee sends its recommendations to its full house (Assembly or Senate), the bill will be placed on a daily calendar for consideration by the entire body.  When the bill comes up for consideration it will have its second reading and the house then considers amendments, first those recommended by the committee, if any, and then any other amendments from the rest of the members of the house.  Finally, after consideration of all amendments, the bill will have its third reading, after which no further amendments can be entertained.  The house will then vote on passage of the bill.  NOTE:  Along the way there may be various motions to table the bill, and it can come up at a later date either specifically or not specifically set), or to indefinitely postpone action, which is the short form of “killing” the bill.

After one house has passed a bill, it messages its action to the other house, and the same series of actions is followed there from referral to committee, to committee hearings and recommendations, to deliberation on the house floor.  It is at this point that simultaneous introduction of the same bill earlier in the process can have the effect of accelerating the process, provided the committee work on the bill has already been done.

When the second house has finished its deliberations on a bill and passes it, it messages its action to the other house.  If the bills passed in both houses are identical, the bill is sent to the governor for his consideration; if the bills are different, as a result of differing amendments, a conference committee consisting of an equal number of legislators from each house will be named to reconcile the differences.  Once the conference committee has worked out the differences, its report goes to the house of origin of the bill and is considered, but cannot be amended.  If passed, the conference committee report moves to the second house for similar consideration.  If passed there, the bill goes to the governor for consideration.

The governor has ten days in which to either sign or veto the legislation.  In practice, that ten-day clock does not begin running until the governor actually receives the bill, and the legislature, out of courtesy, often delays sending passed bills to the governor until the governor calls for the bills.

The VETO is an important part of the legislative process.  With simple legislation, that does NOT contain any appropriation; the governor must either sign or veto a bill in its entirety.  With legislation that DOES contain an appropriation, the governor may choose to sign a bill in part, and veto it in part.  Such partial vetoes, long controversial in Wisconsin, can be of dollar amounts in an appropriation or any wording in the bill.  This “line item veto”, as it is called, is a powerful tool the governor has at his or her disposal, and it has been used to delete single or multiple digits from an appropriation; single letters or strings of letters in the middle of passages, all of which create new meanings for the new law, and sometimes the opposite of what many legislators thought they were passing.  This is sometimes referred to as the “Vanna White Veto” or “Frankenstein Veto” by reporters, because the governor can change single letters and stitch together new phrases.

This is how a bill becomes a law, and a complete explanation of the process can be found in a PDF at the state legislature’s website, which you can download and print.

The final phase of the legislative process is legislative oversight.  The legislature has two committees which provide the bulk of this oversight: the Joint Committee on Audit, and the Joint Committee on Review of Administrative Rules.

The Joint Committee on Audit has a full-time staff, the Legislative Audit Bureau, which from time-to-time studies how various programs have worked and operated.  The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules reviews rules which executive agencies want to write to clarify exactly how they will operate a program or implement a law which the legislature has enacted.

The Administrative Rules Committee actions most often result in rules having the force of law being put into effect without legislative intervention, but the committee exists as a possible check on Executive Branch overreaching or skirting original legislative intent, and can act to intervene if it wishes.