The Life of a Law
Whether you’re on the local, county, state, or federal level, changing laws and policies requires following a certain process.
Step 1: Drafting the Idea
The first step can start with you. If you stumble upon a problem regarding Georgia government, tell your state legislators. At the Capitol, you are represented by a Georgia State Senator and a Georgia State Representative. They have the ability to speak on your behalf to the rest of the Georgia legislators to solve your problem.
Once you find your legislators and contact them with your idea, you can work together to find a solution. If the solution you and your legislator come up with requires altering or creating a Georgia law, then it’s time to move to Step 2.
Step 2: Georgia General Assembly
To alter or create a Georgia law, your legislator must take the idea to Georgia’s version of Congress, called the Georgia General Assembly.
First, your legislator will go to the Office of the Legislative Council. There, an attorney will help them draft a bill using correct terminology and formatting. If your legislator is a Senator, they will file the bill with the Secretary of Senate. If your legislator is a Representative, they will file the bill with the Clerk of the House.
After a bill is filed, the next step is waiting for the second Monday in January, when the Georgia State Legislative Session starts.
Step 3: Georgia State Legislative Session
On the first legislative day after the bill is filed, the bill is formally introduced to legislators through its “First Reading.” The bill’s title is read aloud in the chamber of the legislator who authored it. For example, if your senator files a bill with the Secretary of the Senate on Day 3 of the legislative session, the title of the bill will be read to the Georgia State Senate on Day 4. After the bill is read, the presiding officer assigns the bill to a standing committee.
Second Reading (Georgia House of Representatives only)
On the next legislative day — and only in the Georgia House of Representatives — the bill will have its Second Reading. This is largely ceremonial because the bill is in committee, yet it is still a formal part of the legislative process. For the Second Reading, the Clerk of the House reads the bill’s title aloud again to the chambers. Say, for example, your representative files a bill with the Clerk of the House on Day 10. The title of the bill will be read aloud to the House on Day 11 for its First Reading. The bill is assigned to a committee. On Day 12, the Clerk will read the bill’s title aloud again to the House for its Second Reading, while the bill is still being considered by the committee.
The Senate doesn’t have its Second Reading until after the bill passes through the committee. That means in the Senate, bills that don’t pass the committee don’t get a Second Reading.
The majority of our legislators’ work happens in committee. This is where a bill is discussed and reviewed, dissected, and debated. Much of the fact-finding groundwork happens here.
After the First Readings, each bill is assigned to a specific committee. These committees then get to work. They can invite people to testify on behalf of the bill, such as the bill's author, other legislators, lobbyists, state officials, or even you. Committee members can make changes to bills, adding amendments or making deletions where they feel it is appropriate. Once they’re ready, the committee will vote on the bill saying either yea (yes) or nay (no).
If a bill is good to go, the committee will send it back to its respective legislative chambers with a favorable report. It has 3 options in doing this. It can either mark the bill as:
Do Pass with Amendments
Do Pass by Substitute
Options 1 and 2 mean what they say. Option 3 means it can pass by forwarding an alternate bill.
Once a bill passes committee, it is added to the General Calendar, which lists all bills with favorable reports. It is now ready for floor consideration.
If a committee does not want to pass a bill, the members give it an unfavorable report. The majority of bills actually die in committee. There are 2 options in this case.
It can mark a bill as “Do Not Pass.”
It can hold the bill and issue no report.
Option 2 is the most common case. However, there are ways to force a bill out of committee or to move it to another committee, but only on rare occasions. For example, if a bill is held in committee for 10 legislative days without being issued a report, any member of the house can initiate a petition for its discharge. If two-thirds of the house signs that petition, the bill passes the committee and is added to the General Calendar. A similar process can force a bill to another committee, or from the General Calendar to the floor.
Types of Committees
There are a variety of committees in the Georgia General Assembly, each with its own purpose and set of rules. Here are a few examples:
Standing committees are the most common type of committee. They are more permanent and are always formed each session. All bills introduced during session are assigned to a standing committee, and then all bills must pass here before being considered on the floor. A lot of activity (such as the hearings) happens in standing committees. Some of it can even happen in the interim between sessions.
Study committees are assigned and authorized by one or both houses (typically with a specific issue in mind). They are most active in the interim between sessions in order to do research and learn more about a particular subject.
When the 2 houses can’t agree on a bill, a Conference Committee is created. This process dates all the way back to the beginning of British Parliament. It’s filled with 3 members of each house tasked with finding a compromise. Once they reach a compromise, the legislators present their reports to their respective houses for approval.
Step 4: Third Reading
Once the bill goes through committee, it’s ready for its Third Reading.
After a committee considers a bill and favorably reports back with a Yea, the bill returns to the Clerk of the House or the Secretary of the Senate. They each prepare a General Calendar of bills for their respective chambers, compiling all the favorably reported bills from each committee. This list can become quite extensive.
The Rules Calendar
Using the bills from the General Calendar, the Rules Committees for each house create a Rules Calendar for the next legislative day. The RulesCalendar is the list of bills to be considered on the floor that day. So, on a typical legislative day, the presiding officer of each house brings up the bills from the Rules Calendar for floor consideration.
Once the presiding officer brings up the bills from the Rules Calendar, the Clerk of the House or the Secretary of the Senate read the bill’s title for its Third Reading. If you’re sitting in the chamber at this time, you might think you were at an auction. Each bill title is read quickly, in long-winded sentences. After its Third Reading, the bill finally opens for floor debate by our State Senators and Representatives.
Step 5: The Vote
After a bill goes through its Third Reading, it is presented to the floor of the house where it originated. Debate commences and amendments are discussed. Finally, before moving on to the next bill in the queue, the chamber takes a vote.
All our state senators and representatives push a little button at their wooden desks to vote “Yea” or “Nay” for a bill. You can see the votes popping up in real time on electronic screens at the front of the House and Senate.
If a bill doesn’t pass, it’s not necessarily the end of the road. Georgia’s General Assembly runs in 2-year cycles. This means bills that don’t pass or aren’t voted on during the first year could have a second chance the next year. However, if they don’t pass the second year and you want to try again, you have to start the process over.
If a bill does pass, it moves forward and is sent to the other chamber. That leads us to our second vote.
After a bill passes the house where it originates, it must then go to the other chamber for another vote. The majority of bills switch houses on Crossover Day (Day 30 of the legislative session). The other house typically makes changes to the bill and adds their own amendments.
If a bill is approved by the second house but with changes, then the original house has to accept those changes. Once both houses agree on the same version of a bill, it’s sent to the governor.
So, for example, say a bill originates in the Georgia House of Representatives. After it passes committee, is presented to the House, and passes the House, it is then sent to the Georgia State Senate on Crossover Day. There, the senators discuss the bill and add their own amendments. Then the Senate takes a vote. If it passes the Senate, the bill goes back to the House. If the House likes and accepts the Senate’s changes, the bill will head to the governor.
However, if the House does not like the Senate’s changes, yet the Senate insists that the House accepts their changes, a conference committee (see “Committees” in Step 3) is formed. The conference committee then tries to work things out and find a compromise before reporting back to their respective houses. If each chamber accepts the committee’s report, the bill is sent to the governor.
Step 6: The Governor’s Role
During the session, the governor can ask to sign or veto a bill once it passes both chambers. The governor then has 6 consecutive days after the bill passes to sign or veto if the legislature is still in session.
More often than not, though, bills are sent to the governor after the session ends, formally referred to as Sine Die. ("Sine die" comes from the Latin "without assigning a day for a further meeting or hearing.”) The governor has 40 days to determine whether to sign the bill — creating a law — or veto the bill. If the governor vetoes the bill, it goes back to the chamber where it originated during the next year’s session to see if they wish to override the veto. If the governor vetoes a bill, a two-thirds majority of each chamber must vote favorably to override the governor’s veto.
In Georgia, the governor actually has a third option: do nothing at all. In that case, after the 40 days are up, the bill will automatically become a law.
Step 7: The Bill Becomes a Law
Once a bill is signed (or not signed) by the governor, all the new acts and laws are printed in the Georgia Law series and added to the Official Code of Georgia Annotated (O.C.G.A.), which you can access for free on LexisNexis. Unless otherwise stated in the bill, all acts/laws passed become effective July 1. So even if a bill passes and is signed by April 1, it won’t go into effect for another 3 months.