The Legislative Process in Massachusetts

After Question 4 passed, the media has exploited the state’s wishes to changed certain aspects of the initiative language. This is a detailed explanation of how a bill becomes a law in the Massachusetts state legislature.

Legislation can originate in either the House or Senate, with the exception of revenue bills (also called “money bills;” i.e., bills which require the Commonwealth to raise revenue) and the budget, which are constitutionally mandated to originate in the House. All bills are introduced by legislators, but the state constitution allows citizens to present petitions “by request.” With the cooperation of a legislator, the bill is drafted and submitted. The Governor may also file bills.

Bill Filing:

The bill filing deadline is 5:00 p.m. on the third Friday in January of the first annual session of the General Court.

“Late files” (i.e. bills filed after this deadline) require a report of the committees on Rules of the two branches, acting concurrently, and then approval of two thirds of the members of each branch voting thereon.

Once the bill is filed in the House or Senate Clerk’s office, the bill is given a number andrecorded in a docket book, which lists all bills as they are filed. All bills have a title andnumber. Bills that originate in the House begin with “H” and those that originate in the Senate begin with “S.” The House and Senate Clerk’s office refer bills to the appropriate committee for consideration.

Assignment to Committee:

Bills are referred to a topic-appropriate committee by the Senate Clerk and House Clerk subject to the approval of the presiding officer in each branch, and subject to any changes the full Senate or House may make in the assignment process.

For a list of the current Joint Committees, point your browser to is external).

It is mandatory for each joint committee to hold a hearing on each bill submitted to the committee. Hearings are open to the public and all interested parties may attend and address the committee. The committee chair may limit the time allowed to individual speakers and/or the time allowed for a particular matter.

Committee staff prepare background analyses, known as legislative summaries, on bills for presentation to Committee members before the public hearing. These summaries remain with the Committee staff.

Executive Session:

Following the completion of a hearing, the committee holds an “executive session” to review testimony before making their recommendations. Committees are required to report all bills, but they are not required to conduct hearings on all of them. In Massachusetts, committee chairs lack the authority to individually block legislation in committee.  Executive sessions are open to the public, but only committee members may speak. The committee then issues a report to the Clerk’s office recommending that a bill “ought to pass,” “ought not to pass,” or it is given a study order.

Study orders seek to authorize the Committee to sit during recess and study this measure and similar ones and file a narrative report of its findings. Due to budgetary and staff constraints, though, study orders are seldom approved. The vast majority of bills sent to a study order do not progress any further in the legislative process.

The committee may recommend a new draft of the bill before it (i.e., recommend that the bill “ought to pass” as amended); this committee draft will have a new bill number as assigned by the Clerk. Such a redraft action occurs when many similar measures are filed before the committee, which will report out one draft only. A redraft may also occur when there are major language/terminology changes recommended by the Committee.

If a bill receives a favorable recommendation, the bill moves through the legislative process. This process is known as “Three Readings.”

Bill Readings:

First Reading – This is the first of three mandatory readings in each branch of the General Court. This reading is the account of the Committee Report delivered by the Clerk of the House or Senate. Once a bill receives a favorable report from a committee, it is usually sent to the Committee on Steering and Policy (some bills, especially those involving money, will go to Ways and Means before Steering and Policy).

Second Reading – The Second Reading occurs when the bill is released from Steering and Policy. It is then placed in the Orders of the Day. At this time, the floor of the chamber is
opened for discussion and debate on the merits of the bill. Amendments frequently occur during this time. A favorable roll call vote or a voice vote is needed to send the bill to the Third Reading.

Third Reading – After a vote of approval for the bill’s second reading occurs, it is sent tothe Committee on Bills in Third Reading to be reviewed. This committee checks the contents of the bill for legal technicalities and proper citations. After the bill is releasedby this committee it is read for the third and final time in the chamber where it may againbe debated and amended.

Formal and Informal Sessions:

The Legislature is constitutionally mandated to meet in their respective chambers for either an informal or formal session every 72 hours. Typically, informal sessions are held on Mondays and Thursdays unless there are formal sessions scheduled for those days. The scheduling of informal and formal sessions is determined by the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate.

An informal session addresses non-controversial business of the Legislature and no roll calls are taken. Only reports of committees, enactments, papers from the other branch, resolutions, amendments, matters in the Orders of the Day, and other non-controversial issues are supposed to be considered and are approved by a voice vote. Informal sessions allow the Legislature to address day to day business, however, all business conducted must pass unanimously. If any member objects to a matter, the matter is not approved at that time. Additionally, while no attendance is taken, a handful of members usually attend the session, including a representative of the minority party, a representative of the progressive caucus, and members that anticipate
that their bills may be approved during the session.

A formal session considers and acts upon reports of committees, messages from theGovernor, petitions, orders, enactments, papers form the other branch, matters in theOrders of the Day and any other issues that may be controversial in nature and during which roll calls may be taken.

Engrossment and Enactment:

Once released from the Committee on Third Reading, the bill is brought before the membership for debate and a vote on “passage of the bill to be engrossed.” Once the bill is engrossed, it is sent to the other chamber to repeat the Three Reading process and engrossment. If the House and Senate pass the exact same versions of a bill, a vote on enactment must occur in both chambers.

Conference Committee:

If there are differences between the House and Senate bills, both chambers must agree on one version; the measure can’t progress to enactment until the same draft is approved by both chambers. This situation, which commonly arises during appropriation bill proceedings, requires the appointment of a conference committee. These are temporary bodies that iron out differences in legislation between the two branches. Conference committees are appointed by the Speaker of the House and Senate President of both chambers and consist of three representatives and three senators, one of whom from each body must be from the minority party.

The Governor:

Following enactment, the bill is sent to the Governor, who may act on the bill in a variety of ways. The Governor may:

1. Sign the bill. The bill becomes law after 90 days, unless it contains an emergencypreamble, in which case it becomes law immediately.

2. Veto the bill. The bill is returned to the General Court with his/her reasons for the veto. The legislature may reconsider the bill and can override the veto by a 2/3rdsvote in both chambers. The bill then becomes law without the Governor’s signature.

3. The Governor may choose not to sign the bill but let it become law anyway. This occurs if he/she holds the bill for ten days during which time the legislature is insession.

4. Return the bill to the General Court with recommendation for changes. This action also opens the bill to any additional amendments offered by members. The Legislature can consider the recommendation, but may return the bill without accommodating his/her proposal. If so, the Governor must sign the bill as is or veto it.

5. Line item veto. The Governor only has this power for the annual state budget. He/she may line out or veto certain provisions, most often expenditure items with which he does not agree, and then sign the remainder into law. The line item vetoes are returned to the General Court who can override the Governor’s vetoes with a 2/3rds majority in both chambers.

Any bills that are not passed by the conclusion of the two year legislative session are no longer valid. They must be refiled to be considered during the next session.

Effective Date of Legislation:

Laws involving general legislation (i.e. legislation of a general and permanent effect), become effective 90 days after the Governor’s signature. Days are counted in succession, including holidays and weekends, and acts become effective at 12:01 am on the 91st day.  

Acts with emergency preambles usually provide for the measure to become effective immediately, but always in less than 90 days. The preamble must be adopted by both branches. In such cases, the act is effective upon the precise moment of the Governor’s signature.

In addition, the Governor can file an “emergency letter” requiring an act to become effective immediately. This emergency declaration is filed with the Secretary of State; the effective date and time (down to the minute) is recorded as of the filing in the Secretary of State’s Office.

Some acts contain particular effective date language as a provision within the act. Special acts are usually effective in 30 days unless noted otherwise at the end of the act. Some Special Acts are made effective upon passage if, upon review by Senate or House Counsel or an amendment of the General Court, it is decided that a more immediate effect is necessary.