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Personal bill process is in need of reform

by REP. SAGE DIXON Contributing Writer
| February 13, 2022 1:00 AM

We have entered the busy time of the session when committee meetings are longer, legislators are actively moving around the Capitol persuading each other about the merits of their ideas, and the halls and committee rooms are being filled with members of the public, executive branch agency employees, and lobbyists. There is a distinct energy in the air which inevitably leads to longer days and more work on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Leading up to this flurry of activity is the process of introducing ideas for legislation. This introduction process starts with what is called a routing slip, which is usually referred to as an RS. An RS is the official draft form of an idea that is presented to a committee for an initial review to determine if the idea should move forward in the law-making process.

Normally, an RS is only drafted for a legislator, but legislators can give permission for someone else to work with the bill drafter to craft the idea. Once someone has an RS, the next step is to contact the chairman of the germane committee to schedule a “print” hearing. The print hearing is an important first filter in an idea becoming law.

A print hearing in the germane committee allows members who are more familiar with the subject matter before them to consider the merits of an RS, to gain a superficial understanding of the idea, and to decide if they would like to have a full hearing on the idea. This is usually a perfunctory step, with nearly all RSs being moved along to receive a bill number, but, occasionally, some RSs will be returned to their sponsor.

Once an RS receives a bill number, e.g. HB5, it is then sent back to the germane committee for a full hearing where the committee will be able to scrutinize the idea more in depth and hear public testimony before either passing the bill to be voted on by the full body or holding the bill in committee which effectively kills the bill.

One of the important dates on the House calendar is the 20th day after the session begins. This is the deadline day for drafting of what are called, “personal” bills. Personal bills are pieces of legislation that avoid the standard bill introduction process and are given a bill number without any committee oversight.

This process, and deadline, has increasingly caused a problem for both the House and Senate, although it is primarily House members which avail themselves to personal bills. For better or worse, there are around 750-900 ideas for legislation drafted each year. Roughly 145 of those are budget bills which are drafted in the final half of the session, but the majority are drafted in the beginning of the session.

The difficulty we experience with the deadline is the increased workload put upon the bill drafters to construct what are, more often than not, political statements. This results in waiting five to seven days for a RS to be delivered, as opposed to the one to two days it would normally take to be turned around, which then causes problems with other legislative deadlines, and consumes time needed to educate other legislators about the qualities of the idea.

Another downside to the personal bill is the confusion it can cause among the public. Because personal bills circumvent the introduction process, they generally will not receive a hearing in a committee, and this is well known among legislators. However, personal bills still receive a bill number and are thereby listed on the legislative website as pieces of legislation. Often the public will be told to support, or oppose, these bills not knowing the bill’s origin.

The personal bill process has been in both the House and Senate rules for nearly as long as Idaho has been a state. What started as an opportunity for a minority opinion to be heard has often turned into a political tool that abuses the public trust. We need to reform the process to protect the former, and prevent the latter.

Sage Dixon represents Bonner and Boundary counties in the Idaho House of Representatives, District 1B. He can be reached at sdixon@house.idaho.gov.

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