Part of the goal of the Recovery Advocacy Project is to build an educated and outspoken constituency that work towards community and legislative solutions around the addiction crisis.
Understanding the legislative process is central to making progress towards this goal. Please note that the process described below is for State Legislature and a Governor (However, it can also apply to federal legislation with Congress and the President)
Before we go right into How a Bill becomes a Law, it is important you do some basic research prior to your advocacy efforts. You can use this checklist below to point you in the right direction. If you find it helpful to print this checklist and work with a paper copy, you can find a PDF of this checklist here.
For the purposes of this guide you will want to know who your STATE Representative(s), STATE Senator, and Governor are. Depending on which state you live in you may have multiple elected officials in your state legislature that represent you. This step may come in handy in other parts of the process.
The easiest way to do this is to input your address here
Only ten states have a full time legislature that meets throughout the entire year, therefore you will have to research what time(s) of year your state legislature meets. Some states even meet only every other year.
Start your research here to see if your state is in session. The website is searchable by state and year.
All bills begin with an idea whether is comes from an organization, member of the public, or legislator. If you have an idea for a potential law one day, you can work with your own legislator to have it introduced, or with a legislative champion around that issue. If your bill has already been introduced in the past (or current) you can research by the bill number assigned where the bill is in the legislative process.
Begin your research by googling your state name and “legislature”
Most Legislative pages are searchable by topic or bill number. For example, here is an example of Minnesota’s State Legislative Page https://www.leg.state.mn.us/leg/legis
If the bill already exists, work to research any organizations in your state that may be supporting it and reach out to see how you can get involved.
You can begin your research by searching online for advocacy groups in the state that may have worked on similar issues like mental health grounds, recovery community organizations, harm reduction organizations, prevention networks, or other public policy groups. For example, you can reach out to them and ask which state Legislators may be leaders around addiction, health, or criminal justice, depending on what you are advocating for. These Legislative Champions on issues may end up being co- sponsors or key supporters on the bill you are working on.
This step will prepare you in knowing who to contact when your Bill is assigned a committee (More on this in the ‘How a Bill becomes a Law’ section. The political party that currently holds the majority of seats in each legislative body also hold the chair positions of committees, and controls what may come up for a vote to be moved out of committee (More on this in the ‘How a Bill becomes a Law’ section).
This list can help you predict any opposition to the bill and give you a strategy to counter it if it arises. Some common barriers may be costs to what your bill proposes, stigma, political party opposition, and disinformation about what your bill does.
This step is important for a number of reasons. It can help you to share with decision makers why the bill is important, garner community and organizational support, craft a message, recruit other advocates to the issues, shape future testimony for the bill, and help write some talking points to anyone who wants to help advocate with you.
This process is much easier with a network of Recovery Advocates. Here are some suggestions to help you build your grassroots base.
You can also read this other Recovery Advocacy Guide: HOW TO Build your Advocacy Base.
All bills start with an idea. That idea can even come from you.
State Legislators, your Governors’ Office, outside groups, and constituents like yourself are all able to initiate drafting a bill to potentially become law. You will have to determine the best route in getting a bill drafted. You may find it easier to work with your elected official or organization but both will likely end up working with the state Office of Legislative Services.
Many states have an Office of Legislative Services (OLS) that helps to draft language for a bill. If you are starting from scratch in drafting, it will be worth contacting your state OLS to get pointed in the right direction. Search online to find your State OLS.
Here is an example of a state’s Office of Legislative services https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/legislativepub/oview.asp
Your bill may already have a Sponsor if it was introduced in the past. If your bill is beginning from scratch you will need to find a prime Sponsor.
Only members of the state legislature can introduce the bill. You can ask your own Elected Official to be that Sponsor. Contact their office to see if they will work with you on the Bill and become the Sponsor.
If they will not work with you, identify a Legislative Champion on the topic you are advocating for and reach out to them.
Things to keep in mind when determining who to ask to Sponsor your bill include political party, strength on the issue, and what committee’s they sit on. Most addiction bills go through committees such as Health and Wellness, Public Safety, or Human Services depending on the content of the bill.
The bill’s Sponsor can also get co-sponsors.
The role of the advocates here is to develop a strategy in encouraging the best support from other co- sponsors. It can help if the bill is bipartisan. You can ask organizations and other advocates to contact those potential co-sponsors.
Only members of the state legislature can introduce the bill. The bill Sponsor will make that introduction to the chamber. This is when the bill is assigned a number, has a first reading, and is assigned to a committee (by the majority party leader)
There is no specific role as an Advocate here because only members of the legislature can introduce the bill.
The committee process is where most bill get stuck so your work as an advocate here is crucial. The committee can make amendments, set the bill aside without a consideration, or vote on the bill to go to the entire legislature with or without a recommendation, or vote on it to be passed to another committee.
Your role as an advocate here is to work with the Sponsor, Chairpersons and committee members to encourage a vote. Work with the Sponsor and chairpersons to let you know when there will be a hearing on the bill so you and others can testify.
Please review HOW TO Give Effective Public Testimony
Please share that HOW TO guide with other advocates and ask them to share their related stories and experiences in testimony for the bill. You can also organize written statements from individuals and organizations and submit them at the committee hearings.
Many states have a legislative tracker that announce important dates like public testimony days. It is important to also recognize that hearings can often be during workdays and do not always have advanced notice so you and your supporters will have to be on top of your game.
Once the bill is out of committee it will get a second reading. The bill will get a date to be debated and the entire chamber debates the bill and can make amendments.
The role of the advocate here is to encourage organizations and your supporters to contact their legislators and encourage support of the bill.
The bill will then be scheduled for a vote where it will have a third reading. If a majority of the votes are in favor of the bill, it goes to the state Senate, where a companion bill will be introduced.
Work with the Sponsor of the bill to secure Senate Sponsors. They will have recommendations for you on who some ideal Sponsors will be.
The role of the advocate here is similar to the support generated in the first chamber through advocates continuing to contact their elected officials (State Senators)
A Senator introduces the bill, which is sent to a committee and goes through the same process it did in the other chamber.
The role of the advocates here is the same as it was for the other chamber in terms of testifying in front of committees to support your bill, where it will then stall in committee, be voted out of committee (it can be amended) and on for a vote to the entire Senate where the majority leader will call for the senate to consider the bill.
If a majority vote in favor of the bill if goes back to the original chamber.
If there are differences in the bills due to amendments made, the bill goes into Conference Committee of Elected officials from both chambers to compromise on the language differences and that bill is sent to each chamber for approval.
In this last step the Governor can take one of four actions:
If the bill is vetoed by the Governor, the veto can be overridden by the Legislature with a 2/3rds majority of each legislative chamber to become law.
The role of the advocates here is to make phone calls to the Governor’s office (or letter writing/email campaigns). The more contact to the Governor’s office in this timeframe the better of a chance to show that there is constituent support. Use social media and existing organizations in your state to encourage calls.
We hope this piece of the Advocacy Guide is helpful. We want to remind you to stay focused and empowered throughout this process. Please reach out to other advocates and organizations and build a base both for moral support and consistent encouragement.
The road to a legislative victory can be long but when the bill gets signed into law it is absolutely worth the effort you put into it.
Thank you for checking out the Advocacy Guide and feel free to pass it on to others.