Monday, April 22, 2013

Item of the Month for April 2013 - Questions and Answers on Legislative History

Senate                                                                        House
Lawmakers in the Commonwealth, members of the Massachusetts General Court, make the laws in the state. The Senate and House chambers (above) are where much of the legislative process happens. All proposed laws, whether they are or are not enacted can be researched in the State Library which is, of course, located in the State House.

In the course of any day in the library, there are inquiries about conducting legislative history. The wish to find this history is one of the major reasons for a visit to the library, be it a visit in person or by online inquiry. Reference staff help with inquiries of all kinds about the process and are often in receipt of questions such as the following:

1. What is Massachusetts legislative history?
It is the process of following a legislative petition (bill) to its enactment or to its failure.

2. What is the name of the Massachusetts legislative branch and how many legislators are there?
The General Court- there are 160 members of the House, 40 of the Senate. All are elected every two years.

3. There is a source which compiles legislative history for federal laws- "United States Congressional and Administrative News". Is there such a source for Massachusetts laws?
No, one must actually compile the history from scratch.

4. What are some official sources used in the library to conduct legislative history?
  • Legislative petitions or bills
  • House and Senate Journals
  • Massachusetts General Laws
  • Legislative Record or Index
  • Bulletins of Committee Work
  • Massachusetts Acts and Resolves

5. What is the difference between “chapters” of the Massachusetts General Laws and “chapters” of the Acts and Resolves?
The General Laws are organized into chapters representing overall subject areas. These chapters may be comprised of many different years’ Acts and Resolves. The Acts and Resolves are comprised of laws signed each year and the “chapter” numbers are assigned chronologically, determined merely by the date they are signed into law by the Governor.

6. How are the “general laws” updated?
These are updated when the legislature passes “acts” or “chapters” as mentioned above.

7. What are the compilations of the General Laws called? 
There are 3 compilations of the Massachusetts laws. The official set, published every two years, is updated with supplements. It is called General Laws of Massachusetts and is updated with supplements and Interim supplements. 

The two privately published sets- Massachusetts General Laws Annotated and the Annotated Laws of Massachusetts are updated with annual pocket parts and interim supplements.

8. How soon after the Governor signs a bill into law does it become effective?
Most become effective after 90 days. These 90 days include holidays and weekends. Some acts, become effective immediately and there will be wording saying: "This act shall take effect upon its passage". 

9. What is a “carryover provision” and does Massachusetts have it?
This provision allows a bill introduced in the first year of each two year legislative session which does not pass (elections are held in even years and the sessions are two years beginning in the January after the election) to be considered in the second year.

Before a rules change in 1994, a bill not passed in the first year would “die” and have to be reintroduced the next year and assigned a different number. The “rules change” allowed for a “carryover provision.”

10. What does “engrossment” mean?
Once both branches of the legislature have passed a bill, it goes to the Engrossing Division and is typed on special paper for a final vote enacting it.

Pamela Schofield
Legislative Reference Librarian