Lawmaking can seem like a mysterious process to many of us, and yet it really doesn’t have be that way. The Washington State government makes a substantial effort to make the legislative process accessible to everyone. If you’ve never thought of getting involved in lawmaking before, you might consider changing that this year, as the Washington State legislature convenes each January to debate and enact laws that impact the way we live and work.
Like most states, Washington has a bicameral legislature, meaning we have both a State Senate and a State House of Representatives to help create our laws. Each legislative session begins the second Monday in January, and lasts either 105 days (odd years) or 60 days (even years). During these sessions, some bills are introduced into the House of Representatives, while others are introduced into the Senate. Once these bills are introduced, they are then sent to committees for debate and public hearings. After making any refinements to the language that lawmakers feel are necessary, members of the committees determine which bills should be recommended for passage, at which time the bills are sent back to the full House or Senate for consideration. Bills that are successful in their houses of origin are turned over to the opposite house where the appropriate committees consider whether they be recommended for passage by the full house. Only bills that are passed in both the House of Representatives and the Senate are sent to the Governor to sign into law.
If you are following the status of a particular bill, it becomes important to also be aware of the legislative schedule, as a great many bills die in committee without ever having a chance to reach the floor for a full vote. During the first day of the legislative session, a cut-off calendar is set, identifying various important deadlines in the process. This schedule includes the last day in which committee reports can be read in the house of origin for a bill (recommending that it be passed or not passed), the last day in which the fiscal impacts of a bill can be considered, and reports heard from Ways and Means and Transportation committees in the house of origin. All of these are important steps on the way to a full vote and there is also a deadline for the last day a bill can be heard in the house of origin, after which it dies if it is not passed and sent to the opposite house for consideration.
Once a bill has made it to the opposite house, there are dates in the cut-off calendar for the last day that opposite house committee reports can be heard and also the last day for committee reports from fiscal committees, Ways and Means, and Transportation committees in the opposite house. Finally, the cut-off calendar includes a schedule for the last day to consider opposite house bills as well as the last day for the regular session.
At each step along the way, you can sit in on (and even testify if you wish) public hearings if you care to travel to Olympia, or listen to many of the hearings and floor debates and votes on the Internet live or as recorded audio files. It’s a fascinating process.
Washington State legislators are actually part-timers here – when they’re not making laws during the first part of the year, they are nurses and teachers, realtors and veterinarians, and so forth during the rest of the year. They share our everyday concerns and are more than willing to hear from their constituents about the issues that matter to us. So who are they? Washington State is divided up into 49 legislative districts, each one served by two State Senators and one House Representative. To find yours, just enter your zip code at http://apps.leg.wa.gov/DistrictFinder/Default.aspx or view the statewide map of districts at http://apps.leg.wa.gov/DistrictFinder/statewide.aspx where you can click each district for more details. You’ll find contact information for each legislator as well as links to their biographies and information about their voting records, committee involvement, and bills they have sponsored.
You can easily share your opinions with your lawmakers by calling the Legislative Hotline (1-800-562-6000 (TTY for Hearing Impaired 1-800-635-9993) or sending your lawmaker an email. It’s always best to be respectful, concise, and to illustrate the significance of your position with stories that are personal and meaningful.
Navigating the Website
For anyone interested in the legislative process in general, or in the status of a particular bill under consideration, the Washington State Legislature website (http://www.leg.wa.gov)is a valuable resource. In addition to helping you find and understand more about your lawmakers, you can also find
* The legislative calendar
* Committee and house agendas
* Training and reference information for understanding the legislative process for adults and students
(including a Washington State coloring book and student guide to the Washington legislature)
* Tools for finding bills and tracking bill status
* Committee staffer contact information
* Archived Internet-accessible audio and video files of committee and House and Senate floor proceedings
If you think you might like to become involved in the lawmaking process, try finding a bill that interests you and following it through the system to get an idea of how the system works. Along the way, if you have opinions, you can find the legislators representing your district and send them your thoughts. As you become more familiar with the legislative process, you may find you wish to develop a closer relationship with your legislators in the “off-season” and discuss with them the issues that matter to you, which could result in developing legislation for the next legislative session.