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Bill Trackers: Learn to Follow Your State Legislation

State legislatures pass hundreds to thousands of bills each year, but do we know what happens in each of those bills passed?  Often times, no. That’s why tracking your state government’s legislation is important.  It may seem like a daunting task at first, but we’ve compiled a couple tips to make tracking your legislature that much easier.

1. Know the process

You can’t navigate if you don’t have a map. Similarly, you can’t follow a bill if you don’t know where it’s supposed to go next.  The first thing you should do when tracking a bill is familiarize yourself with your state’s specific legislative process. Which committees have to sign off? Is there a time for citizen testimony? What’s the amendment process? You should know the answer to all of these questions so you stay ahead of the curve.

2. Find your state’s legislative websites

waleg

After you’ve familiarized yourself with the process of how bills are passed, your next stop should be your state’s legislative website– a one-stop shop to find out what’s going on in the statehouse.  A good (and transparent) state legislative website will let you examine the details of different committees, floor meetings, bills and votes.

There are other websites out there that specifically focus on tracking legislation.  Websites such as Ballotpedia and Billtrack50 serve as great resources because they link directly to the committees and their members, dates of legislative sessions, and much more.
Example:
This one Ballotpedia page shows Tennessee legislator Bo Watson.  It shows basic information such as party affiliation, term in the House/Senate, leadership positions and other biographical information.  But it also shows more detailed information on his committees, links to who is on them, and links back to the actual committee.

3. Keep an eye on blogs and social media

Follow party leaders, caucuses, and state parties on social media in order to find out information about a particular bill.

Example:
.@RepBigGovTurner: HB124 introduced. Saving more babies is around the corner #medicaidsaves
This gives you a few clues.  First, it gives you a specific bill number to research.  From there, you can find out who is co-sponsoring, what committee the bill is in, and who is chairing the committee when you look up the bill on the state legislative website or tracking website.

Sometimes you can find out exclusive information or insider tips about session before the official word is released. Just follow a legislator’s social media account, like this South Carolina legislator below:

wpid-storageemulated0PicturesScreenshots2014-01-27-15.56.05.png

But politicians and party leaders aren’t the only ones who have great insight into the statehouse legislative process.  State capitol reporters often have a social media presence (especially on Twitter) and are at the state capitol giving minute-by-minute updates online.  It’s especially helpful to follow them when you can’t always be present at the statehouse.
Local political blogs are also really good sources to follow for inside information.  If they are already doing the hard work of tracking, you can stay informed and save yourself long hours of research.

4. Find out who the players are

florida leg lobby

If a bill needs to come out of a committee to move forward, often times someone needs to be lobbied.  Those that agree with a certain viewpoint on the bill will vote to bring it to the body of the whole.  Many bills die in committee- sometimes on purpose because of disagreements between legislators.
Sometimes interactions between legislators can provide insight into why a particular bill moves forward.
Example:
Senator X has a sister who has a disease. Special funds are allocated to program helping that particular disease. Senator Y supported strongly the disease research initiative. Senator Y has a bill coming up he favors. Senator X supports Y.
Is it corruption, tit for tat, or making friends?  Even though a cause may be noble, this example illustrates why one special project may get special funding over another.

NOTE: Some bills that are introduced are just stunts, so don’t waste your time on nonsense. Learn to see the difference between campaign shenanigans and real legislation.

5. Find out when a bill is coming up on hearing or for testimony

ak leg committee

The best time to start tracking a bill is while it is still in committee.  If you wait until it goes before the full legislative body for a vote, it is often too late.

Here are three ways to stay on top of committee hearings and testimonies to avoid this problem:

  •  Email and/or call the committee legislator’s offices- Ask them to keep you informed on an issue or particular bill.
  •  Set up a Google alert for the key committees/issues you are interested in- A news outlet may obtain information through an open records request that sheds light on an upcoming bill or addresses a new angle you hadn’t considered.
  •  Sign up for committee alerts through the overall legislature if available- Sometimes you can request an email to let you know the upcoming agendas which may include bills introduced, discussion, substitute language etc.
Most importantly, keep up to date by watching legislative sessions and committee hearings either in person or through televised sessions. Many states have public televised programs and some have it online.  If you watch these sessions online, you can easily multitask by playing the session in one window while doing other things in another web page.

6. Find the “loophole” in the amendment

loopholes

 One way to stand out from other bill trackers is to find a loophole or amendment that’s not talked about in the news or on political blogs.

For example, the California state legislature may be looking to pass a bill that’s looking to increase funding for a state park.  However, a clause in the bill might be dedicating subsidies to fisheries off the coast of San Francisco that nobody’s focusing on. Explore this angle further rather than regurgitating what other news outlets are already covering.

Questions?

Contact katherine.rodriguez@franklincenterhq.org for guidance!

Katherine Rodriguez

Katherine Rodriguez is a Citizen Outreach intern at Watchdog Wire. Twitter: @krod315

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Categories: Must Read, Quick Tips
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