You Can File Bills In the Massachusetts Legislature — Here’s How

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The word lawmaker refers to a legislator — whether that’s in the U.S. Congress or a state legislature. However, there is also someone else who can make laws in Massachusetts:  you.

Massachusetts is the only state in the country where its citizens have an explicit constitutional right to file bills directly in the state legislature, as the State Library of Massachusetts points out. The idea came from English common law, and first appeared in the Massachusetts Body of Liberties in 1641, and once again in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.

The 1641 rule says (with period spelling):  “Every man whether Inhabitant or fforreiner, free or not free shall have libertie to come to any publique Court, Councel, or Towne meeting, and either by speech or writeing to move any lawfull, seasonable, and materiall question, or to present any necessary motion, complaint, petition, Bill or information, whereof that meeting hath proper cognizance, so it be done in convenient time, due order, and respective manner.”

And the current rendition from the 1780 state constitution reads:  “The people have a right, in an orderly and peaceable manner, to assemble to consult upon the common good; give instructions to their representatives, and to request of the legislative body, by the way of addresses, petitions, or remonstrances, redress of the wrongs done them, and of the grievances they suffer.”

So can you call up or email your state legislator and get a bill written?

Yes, state Representative David DeCoste (R-Norwell) told NewBostonPost.

“You could have someone ask a politician to do that,” DeCoste told NewBostonPost in a telephone interview. “I have no problem doing that. I’ve had success with it working on Foster Care. We’re working with a constituent on a bill about Licensed Site Professionals, as well as a Bill of Rights for property owners. I have also worked with local police families to resume the death penalty of cop killers.”

A member of the Massachusetts legislature can simply “present” the bill “by request,” meaning the legislator who presents it is not a sponsor of it. Yet DeCoste has worked on trying to pass the aforementioned bills and has put his name behind them. In some cases. he has found co-sponsors across the aisle for them. 

For example, H.204 is a foster care bill of rights. DeCoste got the idea from a constituent, but it has three petitioners, including a Democratic state representative:  Colleen Garry (D-Dracut). A few provisions of the bill prevent foster parents from discrimination based on many physical characteristics or national origin, as well as guaranteeing them access to information on a child’s background and behavioral history before taking the child in.

Another bill,  H.882, presented by DeCoste with two other petitioners in the legislature, would create a board of registration for hazardous waste site cleanup professionals (Licensed Site Professionals).

Additionally, in the previous legislative session, DeCoste offered his support to a piece of citizen-sponsored legislation (S.1751) that would increase the state property tax exemption for disabled veterans from $400 to $1,000, a bill state Senator Patrick O’Connor (R-Weymouth) filed “by request.” And DeCoste filed a bill earlier this session to reinstate capital punishment for cop killers in Massachusetts (H.1537); the Boston Patrolmen’s Association is among the petitioners for this bill.

Is it a difficult process for constituents to file a bill?

Not really.

“Let’s use the property tax analogy,” DeCoste said. “If you call me up and say, ‘Dave, I want to file a bill that basically lets every individual town establish that when someone hits 65, their property bill gets frozen, I take that idea, I give it to the House Counsel, Mr. James Kennedy. He writes up the bill, sends it back to me, and asks, ‘Is this what you’re looking for?’ Of course, Mr. Kennedy looks to make sure the bill hasn’t already been written or doesn’t interfere with the state or federal constitution. Then I would file it. A lot of times it could be filing by petition, but I rarely file by petition. The foster care bill you could say is by petition, but that gained a lot of support.”

One of the more prominent examples of a citizen-sponsored bill came more than 20 years ago:  from children. 

Then-state Representative Kathleen Teahan (D-Whitman) used to work at the Toll House Inn in Whitman (according to The Associated Press), which invented the chocolate chip cookie in 1930. At the request of a third-grade class from Somerset, then-state Representative Tom Norton (R-Somerset) filed a bill to make the chocolate chip cookie the official cookie of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts — and Teahan helped push to make it happen. Ultimately, the provision passed — but not without some pushback from the state’s Republican governor at the time, Bill Weld. The holdup:  Weld preferred Fig Newtons.

Generally, there are many steps it takes for a bill to become a law, according to

Once someone writes the bill, it goes to a legislative committee made up of state senators and state representatives. The committee that receives the bill schedules a hearing on it, which follows. If it’s a frivolous bill, it’s possible that no one shows up for the hearing — not even the person who wanted the bill in the first place.

Following the hearing, the committee decides whether or not the bill should pass. If the committee votes to give a favorable report on the bill, then the bill could go to another legislative committee. If the bill gets another favorable report, it can be subject to amendments, motions, and debate. Then Massachusetts Legislature’s Committee on Bills has to read it. That committee reviews bills for legality, constitutionality, and redundancy. If the bill passes muster, then it is eligible for debate on the House or Senate floor, and come up for a vote. If one chamber approves the bill, then it goes to the other chamber. (Say the bill passes the House first; then it goes to the Senate.)

In the second chamber, the bill will have three readings. If it passes there, it is then typed onto special parchment by the Legislative Engrossing Division. Since legislators in the second chamber (whether it be House or Senate) can add amendments onto bills, once the second chamber approves a bill, then it goes back to the first chamber for a concurrence vote — to see if the first chamber approves bill in its amended form. If the first chamber rejects the amended version of the bill, bipartisan conference committee featuring three members from each chamber attempts to come up with a compromise bill.

If the conference committee agrees on a version, then the House and Senate get a chance to voted on the newly agreed-upon version. (Both chambers must approve the exact same language, or the bill can’t proceed.)  If both chambers approve the bill, then it goes to the governor’s desk. The governor may sign it into law, allow it to become law without signing it, veto the bill, or send it back to the chamber where it originated while offering amendments. A two-thirds vote in both chambers can override the governor’s veto and enact the bill into law.

The Democratic Party has a veto-proof supermajority in Massachusetts, meaning Democrats can override a veto from the governor if they vote as a bloc.

Only about 5 percent of bills proposed in the Massachusetts legislature ever become law, according to GBH — the lowest in the country. Between 6,000 and 8,000 bills are filed in the Massachusetts legislature each session, according to the state’s web site.


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