This week is bound to be the busiest of the 2019 legislative session and the most frustrating for lawmakers — it’s crossover week.
Every bill, file and resolution that’s going to survive must meet the crossover deadline: each must be approved by its chamber of origin and passed to the other by Feb. 6. Measures that don’t make it through the necessary hoops in time are dead for the year. The deadline for House bills to move to the Senate and vice versa is the one hard and fast point on the session timeline for which leadership maintains a firm adherence.
The near impossibility of this giant bill shuffle occurring smoothly can be seen in the imbalance of work that occurs over each day of the session.
The strain and tension of crossover week hits legislative staff, otherwise known as the Legislative Service Office, the hardest. Ten to 12 LSO staffers are attorneys responsible for quickly writing bill amendments, no matter how complex they may be. As bills race toward the deadline through first, second and third readings, the changes can pile-up in a hurry. It keeps the lawyers busy, to say the least.
They have vastly different levels of experience ranging from one year to several decades. For several recent years, some well-seasoned but recently retired LSO attorneys have been willing to return during legislative sessions. This greatly enhances the speed and accuracy of amendments. It’s no small task writing them to conform not only to the essence of the bill, but also to existing law throughout Wyoming Statutes.
During crossover week, these attorneys are at their desks before any legislators have arrived in the morning and remain there well after the last legislator has left the building late at night. The team is divided more or less equally between the House and Senate and are physically located near the respective chambers. It always seemed during my years in the Legislature that the House attorneys were more swamped with work than those assigned to the Senate. Part of that can be explained by the fact that there are twice as many House members (and therefore bills) as there are senators. The fact that the typical Representative has less experience with the process, and thus may need more assistance, contributes as well.
During my time in the Legislature, I wrote a weekly column for my local newspaper, the Buffalo Bulletin. Fortunately, I have retained electronic copies of each column over my 12 years of service — a total of 84 pieces. While preparing to write this week’s Madden’s Measure I glanced over the past columns that coincided with crossover week. In short, things haven’t changed: It was frenetic then and still is.
To understand why, it’s helpful to know the litany of steps a bill must take and mini-deadlines it must meet just to get to the crossover point. First a measure has to make it out of committee. In this session, Friday, Feb. 1 was the last chance for House bills to do that. Those that didn’t die in committee — either by being voted down or languishing — then had to have their first reading on the floor of the House — also known as the Committee of the Whole — the very next legislative day, Monday, Feb. 4. The respective final days for second and third reading of bills are Feb. 5 and 6. Only after receiving these three readings, and three passing votes, can a House bill be delivered to the Senate.
The tight timeline and giant list of bills makes for long, full days. Unfortunately the quality of work being done by the Legislature doesn’t always keep pace with the quantity.
Bills can be, and usually are, amended at each of these four stages, resulting in a continuous flurry of paperwork piling up on each legislator’s desk. Committee agendas grow geometrically leading up to crossover week. Because of this, many bills are expedited out of committees with limited debate and discussion. But clearing the desks in committees only increases the workload and decreases the quality of attention further down the legislative pipeline. Adjournment often doesn’t arrive until 11 p.m. or later in the frantic days that lead into crossover.
Members of the public are rightly puzzled by the uneven distribution of activity in an eight-week session. They visit the Legislature and see a lot of pageantry, guest speeches, recesses and other down time during other weeks of the session. Depending on when you arrive, it can look like not much is being done. But a look at the numbers shows otherwise and gives a good idea of how the work asymmetry happens.
Three hundred and twenty-six bills were filed in the House this year. As of Thursday, Jan. 31, 101 of these bills had completed the House process and and moved to the Senate — somewhat less than one-third of the total in the first 17 days of the session. That left more than 200 surviving bills to be processed in the last four days before crossover, with a fresh deadline looming each day. Of these, 109 had been referred to committee, but had yet to be reported out of committee — an average of 11 bills per committee with one day to go before the committee deadline. A total of 31 bills were not assigned to a committee. The remaining 70 were in their first, second or third reading.
Readers with the patience to follow me through these numbers will note the dichotomy: 101 bills worked through the system in the first 17 days, 180 will be acted upon in the final four days before crossover, Wednesday Feb. 6.
We can all see where this is heading. Many remaining bills will not survive and some of them shouldn’t. However, many others will be sent to the Senate to be fixed or to fade away later in the process.
Of course, this workload is nothing new. A quick survey of previous years’ numbers shows us that the last minute rush is par for the course.
The long bumpy road a bill is required to travel before becoming law is only half complete at this point because the Senate’s process is the House’s. If other years are an indicator of the success of House bills in the Senate, about two-thirds of the bills that reach the Senate will, in fact, become law.
The core reason for the backlog in the House is simply the large number bills that are filed in the fixed number of legislative days. This year appears to be a record. In the House, unlike the Senate, there is no limit on the number of bills an individual representative can sponsor. As an example, 102 of the 326 total House bills that have been filed have been sponsored by the 10 most bill-prolific representatives for an average of over 10 bills each. One member, Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), sponsored 16 bills alone. In contrast, after accounting for committee bills, the other 50 House members are responsible for the remaining 150, for an average of about three apiece.
The long-standing reason for no bill limitations is that the House of Representatives, like Great Britain’s House of Commons, is “the people’s House” and therefore should be open for the consideration of all ideas from all quarters.
It’s a worthy ideal, and one that I support, though, I think we can all agree as we head into crossover week, it’s a concept that would benefit from a little self-discipline among Representatives.