Demystifying the Legislative Process – How a Bill Becomes Law


(December 9, 2022) Understanding how a bill becomes a law can be an overwhelming task. This chart attempts to illustrate the complex process, but is scant on the interpersonal and unspoken factors that can impact a bill as it works through the process. This article is to attempt, as much as possible, to demystify a complicated process.  It won’t be as entertaining as the School House Rock version, but I hope it provides some insight.

Pre-Introduction / Idea Phase

This is the phase of the process we are currently in. During fall recess, legislative staff are busy researching bill proposals for consideration in their boss’s legislative package. In the Senate, members can introduce up to 40 bills during a 2-year cycle, and in the Assembly, members can introduce up to 50 bills in a 2-year cycle. It is up to members how they split those numbers up between the two years and how many of the allotted bills they actually use.

Ideas for legislation come from a variety of sources. Whether it be an idea from a constituent, an idea that came about through the course of reviewing previous legislation, an idea that originated from the member themselves, or an idea that originated from an interest group, like AIA CA. These ideas are brought to the attention of legislative staff, who then research the bill idea to see how viable the bill is, how the bill will fit in the members package, how it will impact their district, what political implications it has, and if it is in line with their policy objectives and goals. After vetting, these ideas are condensed into the “legislative package” that the member will “carry” through the process for the year.

In order for a bill to be introduced it must be formally drafted by the Legislative Counsel unit at the Capitol. This is a unit of lawyers at the Capitol that are specifically tasked with drafting legislation and giving legal opinions to legislators.

Introduction/Referral Phase

Once a legislative package is finalized, members will begin to introduce their bills, or “put them across the desk.” This refers to the process of submitting your bill language with proper signatures of authors and coauthors to the desk in the house in which the member serves, at which point they are assigned a bill number (i.e. AB XXX for the Assembly and SB XXX for the Senate). The desk is located at the front of both chambers and is made up of staff people who serve under the Secretary of the Senate or the Chief Clerk of the Assembly. They have many ministerial tasks to ensure the orderly conduct of the business before the Legislature, and the retention of legislative records for the use of the public. One of those tasks is processing the introduction of bills.

After a bill has been introduced, it will be sent to the Rules Committee in its respective house. This committee is tasked with looking at the language of the bill and deciding which standing committees in the house have jurisdiction over the content of the bill and then assigning the bill to be heard in those committees. A bill can be referred to multiple committees depending on the content.

Committee Process / Stakeholder Input

Once a bill is assigned to committee(s) the committee process begins. Each committee in the legislature has staff who are tasked with analyzing the bills that come before that committee. Their task is to analyze the bill and take into account all of the arguments in support or opposition, and at times request/suggest changes to the bill. Based on this analysis, they will make recommendations to the chair of the committee, who often then makes recommendations to the members of the committee for how to vote (note: while most committee chairs do make recommendations, some choose to leave it up to members to choose what is best for them).

The committee process is the opportune time for interest groups to weigh in on bills and discuss any issues or opportunities they may see with the bill. This is the time when coalitions come together to discuss and work out issues, usually with the legislator’s staff and the committee staff. The committee process is also the time for legislators to make their concerns or support for bills known and work with each other.

The bills are then presented in front of the committee. Support and opposition are given the opportunity to formally weigh in on the bill in a public hearing, members of the committee are given the opportunity to discuss the bill and ask questions, and then a vote is taken. If the bill receives support from the majority of the members, the bill get’s out of committee and is moved along in the process either to the next policy committee, the Appropriations Committee or directly to the floor.

Fiscal Committee Process

All bills tagged to have a fiscal impact by Legislative Counsel are automatically referred to the Appropriations Committee following their hearings in assigned policy committees. Similar to the policy committee process, the committee consultants for the Appropriations Committee will review and analyze the bill’s fiscal impacts. The committee will reach out to all stakeholders who are impacted to get their estimates for how much the bill will cost to implement.

If the committee deems the bills to have minor and negligible costs, then both houses have separate ways of letting the bill out of committee: in the Senate, Senate Rule 28.8 allows for these bills to simply be let out of committee by decision of the chair, whereas, in the Assembly, these bills go on a consent calendar and are passed out of committee as a batch.

In the Senate, all bills that have a fiscal cost over $50,000 from the General Fund or $150,000 from a special fund are automatically referred to the “suspense file,” while in the Assembly, any bill that has a cost over $150,000 from any funding source are automatically referred to the “suspense file.” These bills are held on this file until closer to each houses deadline to pass bills to the other house and then are all heard in a single hearing. Once these bills are placed on the suspense file, the Chair of the Appropriations Committee has the sole authority to decide what bills are allowed to come up for a vote and what bills die. They are not required to give any explanation for why a bill is allowed to be brought up for a vote or allowed to die.

Floor Process 

Once a bill has passed out of policy and fiscal committees, it is referred to the floor of the respective house. This is where the bill has a vote of the full body. Most bills require a majority vote (41 votes in the Assembly and 21 votes in the Senate). Others, such as bills containing an urgency clause, tax increase, amendments to the Political Reform Act, and constitutional amendments, require a 2/3 vote (54 votes in the Assembly and 27 votes in the Senate). Members on the floor are given the opportunity to speak on the bill and ask questions, while members of the public are not.

Once a bill is passed off the floor in it’s house of origin, the bill is then referred to the other house where the entire process is repeated. If a bill is amended in the second house, it must return to the floor in the house of origin for a vote to concur in the amendments.

Governor’s Desk

All bills that successfully make it through this process in both houses are then sent to the Governor for consideration. The Governor has his own legislative staff who analyze the bills and make recommendation to him. The Governor usually has 12 days to sign or veto a bill (not including Sundays) after the bill is presented to him (not from the date the bill passes), otherwise the bill becomes law. However, the 12 day rule only applies to bills presented to the Governor twelve or more days prior to the date the Legislature adjourns for a joint recess in the first year of the two-year session, as well as on or before August 20th of the second year of the Session. For all bills that fall under that timeline, the Governor has until September 30th to sign or the bill becomes law.

Bill Becomes Law

If a bill has made it to this point, congratulations! You have successfully navigated a complex process that many bills have not. Most bills go into effect January 1st of the year following passage. However, bills with an urgency clause go into effect immediately.

Every year, the Advocacy Advisory Committee meets to discuss AIA CA’s proactive legislative agenda for the year and make recommendations to the Board of Directors. This often includes solving issues architects are facing through the legislative process in the form of bills. AIA California has had many successes with sponsored bills going through this process and being signed by the Governor.

Additionally, after the bill introduction deadline each year, AIA CA reviews the thousands of bills that are introduced by members of the legislature and identifies those that might have an impact on the profession. These bills are reviewed by various committees within AIA CA, as well as the Advocacy Advisory Committee, who make recommendations to the Board on which bills we should take a formal position on (i.e. support, oppose, support with amendments, or oppose unless amended). These positions are available on our website and regular updates are issued in the weekly newsletter, Relevance. If you ever have an issue impacting the profession that you think needs to be fixed through the legislative process or questions about a bill going through the process, please do not hesitate to reach out.

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