With so many new faces across county government, MACo thought it would be helpful to offer something of a Q&A to help those seeking to follow last-minute issues as the legislative session winds down. Here, we will try to answer some of the “frequently asked questions” about the terminology and process that can be truly difficult to grasp.
As always, the MACo office is happy to be of help to anyone in the county community, and to be of help to anyone trying to follow legislative issues. But with the sprawled out day likely directing our policy staff from place to place all day and night long, we hope to give you as much do-it-yourself guidance as we can here.
What is so important about the last day of session?
The Maryland General Assembly’s 90-day session is a self-contained process — meaning that any legislation not passed through the entire process and sent on to the Governor’s desk by midnight Monday is effectively defeated. The same Delegate or Senator could re-introduce the same idea in a new bill next year, but it would have to start over –a new bill number, new public hearings, and so forth.
What’s especially important on the last day is that close is not enough. Bills passing the Senate but not the House, or vice versa — are just as dead as those that were voted down ten weeks ago.
By the last day, does that really mean midnight?
Absolutely. Both the Senate and House will be meeting intermittently on their main floor and in various committees throughout the day, starting mid-morning and literally running until midnight on the actual clocks. At that point, the chambers will adjourn sine die (a latin term essentially meaning “without the new day” — and almost universally but loosely pronounced in Annapolis as SIGH-knee dye”). While some other timekeeping during the session is itself hard to follow (like the use of “legislative days” versus “calendar days” as a means to allow procedural solutions to certain constraints, the midnight call of sine die is right on time, and absolutely the last word for the 90 day session.
I’m following things online, what should I do?
The General Assembly’s website is an excellent portal for public information about bill actions, and includes most of what you’d want to tune into. Information about any one bill — searchable by sponsor, number, or topic — is readily available from the top of the main page. Here are a few other specific links that may prove helpful:
http://mlis.state.md.us/asp/listen.asp – links to the audio feed live from both chambers (or a note of the expected time for the next session, if they are not currently on the floor, also very handy)
House Agenda – items scheduled to be discussed in a coming session on the floor of the House of Delegates
Senate Agenda – items scheduled to be discussed in a coming session on the floor of the Senate
General Assembly FAQ -good general information about the website tools and their use
Of course, if you’re following a county government issue, you are welcome to contact the MACo offices for guidance.
Don’t some bills have to pass? Won’t the session get extended to make sure they do?
While there’s political pressure in every session to pass certain legislation that has received wide attention or support, the Monday midnight deadline is supreme. The only exception under the Maryland Constitution is that there must be an operating budget bill passed and enacted into law. Every other piece of legislation, no matter its importance, is defeated on Midnight unless it has cleared every step of the approval process. Many a bill has fallen one signature short, or seen one final vote not quite called on time, in those final minutes — and such is the process. Try again next year.
Other than just passing or killing bills, what else is going on Monday?
For any bill to pass the General Assembly and be sent to the Governor for a signature into law, it must have been approved in an identical form by both the Senate and the House. In many cases, this is pretty straightforward — the chamber of origin works on the bill, perhaps amends it into a form it prefers, and passes it. The other chamber, later in the session, looks at the “crossed over” bill and agrees with it, passes the same bill, and that bill is returned passed to the original chamber. Many non-controversial bills follow this exact path.
When there is more attention or debate on a bill, the process can become more complicated. What if a House bill gets amended then passed in the Senate? Then, the two chambers have both passed the bill, but in different forms. This can go several ways, including the House simply concurring with the Senate version and granting final passage that that version (this bill will be shown as passed enrolled on its online bill history). But when the two sides truly disagree, they often form a conference committee, including a few (usually three) members from each chamber to work out their differences and deliver a conference committee report directly to the floor of each chamber for a final vote on the ultimate and identical version of the bill. Since the two chambers must vote on the identical legislation, voting on a conference report is a pure “up or down” vote, with no amendments or conditions possible.
On the last day of session, a multitude of bills will be in this process, having made steps toward passage but in need of further work. Delegates and Senators will be meeting in conferences throughout the day and night, in efforts to wrap up work and get their bills ready for final passage. If past is any guide, any number of these last-minute efforts will yield reports that make it to the desk of the House and Senate in the waning minutes of the session, with a literal “race against the clock” to determine their passage.
The bill I’m watching seems far away from passing, is it dead?
This is a common perception in this process, and sadly the best answer is usually “it depends.” The practice of bills receiving no final vote at all, even in their first committee assigned, has become increasingly common for a variety of reasons — so many bills that are destined to die will sit for most of the 90 day session in the exact same posture, no action taken, until they are disposed of at the end of session (without being passed, they simply do not become law, even without any votes being cast against them).
However, over recent there are any number of examples of bills that seemed to be hopelessly stuck, only to receive final attention and ultimate passage even in the very final hours of the General Assembly session. Sometimes other issues’ resolutions resolved a logjam for the bill that had been previously held up, other times it’s just the pressure created by the session’s end that elevates the urgency for stakeholders and legislators to take final actions. In any case, no actions are truly final until the midnight bells sound, especially the “no action yet” status.