Every year as the Legislature is finishing up in Montpelier, lawmakers pass a bunch of new bills. And around that time, the governor signs some of them. But how exactly does a bill get from lawmakers to the governor?
Contrary to what Schoolhouse Rock would have you believe, legislation doesn’t immediately go to the governor’s office after lawmakers give their final approval.
“Once the bill has been approved, then it goes through what’s called the engrossing process,” says Bill Magill, the the clerk of the Vermont House of Representatives. “The amendments are put into the bill itself and then put into a final product.”
The “engrossing process" — which could probably have a more appealing name — is where the bill turns into a single, finalized document that describes the exact changes that legislators have agreed to make to state law.
But the bill still isn’t ready for the governor.
After the engrossing process, the bill goes to the Office of Legislative Council — the Legislature’s dedicated legal and clerical staff — for proof-reading. This is the final edit within the Legislature.
“If it’s all correct, we get a final approval from Legislative Council that says the bill’s ready to go to the governor,” Magill says.
Once that’s done, the House Clerk’s office — or the Senate Secretary’s office, if the bill originated in the Senate — works with the governor’s office to figure out when to transfer the bill from the Legislature’s possession to the governor’s.
“Typically towards the end of [the legislative] session, there’s about 50 to 60 bills that they need to take, and we try and give them a little bit of time to work through so they’re not taking all 50 at once,” Magill says.
Spacing out the timing of delivery isn’t just a matter of making things convenient for the governor’s staff — it also has to do with a mandatory time limit. Once the governor’s office takes possession of the bill, the governor has to act on that bill within five days, or it becomes law automatically, with or without the governor’s approval.
That doesn’t mean a governor can simply refuse to take possession of a bill as a way of avoiding a politically sensitive topic (or for any other reason).
Magill says in the past, gubernatorial staff have refused to provide a signature confirming that the governor’s office received the bill, “but typically even if they don’t sign for it, there have been times in the past where we’ve put down in our book that [it was] ‘Delivered to the governor’s office but not signed for,’ and that still starts the [five-day] clock running.”
In other words, Magill says, “it’s not necessarily a choice that they have that they can make. If a bill’s passed, it needs to go over there, and they have to deal with it.”
Once a bill gets to the governor’s office, administration staff go over the legislation line by line, word by word, to ensure it would do what the Legislature intended.
At the same time that legal assessment is made, the governor and his advisors deliberate about the politics of the bill: Is this a piece of legislation that fits with the governor’s agenda for Vermont? Are there any policies in the bill that are deal-breakers for the governor?
After the bill has been reviewed, the governor has three options: sign it into law, veto the bill or allow it to become law without a signature.
Sign it into law
The most straightforward of these options is for the governor to sign the bill into law. At any time after the governor receives the bill from the Legislature, he or she can sign it. That signature turns it into state law immediately.
It’s important to remember that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the new law takes effect immediately. Some bills are passed with “effective dates” set in the future.
For example, in June 2014, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the state’s ban on using cell phones while driving, but that law didn’t go into effect until Oct. 1, 2014. Lawmakers often build in these delays to allow administrative agencies to train officers to enforce the new law, or to train staff to carry out a new responsibility.
A veto is the governor’s only procedural option if he or she wants to stop a bill from becoming law. If the governor strongly opposes a piece of legislation, a signed gubernatorial veto will send that bill back to the Legislature.
Once the governor vetoes a bill, the only way it can become law is if the Legislature overwhelmingly supports it. The bill must pass both chambers – the House of Representatives and the Senate – with a two-thirds majority. If two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers vote to pass the bill and “override” the veto, it becomes law even though the governor opposed it.
If a vetoed bill fails to win two-thirds majority support in both the House and the Senate, that legislation is defeated. The only way for that policy to become part of state law is if legislators start the whole process over again with a new bill.
If the governor vetoes a bill after legislators have adjourned for the year (normally, lawmakers are only “in-session” from January to late April or early May), then the Legislature has to reconvene for a special “veto session” later in the year in order to hold a vote to override the veto.
The ‘Meh’ Option
One option a governor does not have when he or she receives a bill from the Legislature is to simply do nothing and hope the issue goes away.
The governor does have the option of doing nothing and allowing the five-day time limit to expire, which means the bill becomes a law without any explicit support or opposition from the governor.
This allows the governor the option of allowing a new law to pass without taking any action to help it along, or show political support. When a governor lets a law pass without signing it, that’s often a signal to lawmakers and the public that the policy doesn’t line up with the administration’s agenda.
Until a piece of legislation reaches one of those endpoints, it's still just a bill.