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Using the Legislative Process to Address Sexual Violence

April 5, 2010

Many of us remember Schoolhouse Rock and the catchy tune about a lonely bill waiting to become a law. Although the intent of the cartoon is to give a brief yet memorable overview of the legislative process (just try getting that tune out of your head!), it also shows us that in real life the journey from idea to bill to law can be quite complicated. Whenever you try to engage in decision making that will affect millions of people, it can get messy! Still, it’s a worthwhile undertaking, especially if the policy change sought will make a positive difference in someone’s life or enhance the well-being of the entire community. Proposals addressing sexual violence prevention and intervention strategies certainly meet these criteria.

Each year the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA) works with a public policy committee and seeks input from its membership to develop a legislative agenda that will be pursued on the state level. The agenda has three key areas: sexual violence prevention, support for victim/survivors, and access to justice. Once the agenda is adopted by the MNCASA board of directors, members of the MNCASA staff and contract lobbyists work to finalize bill language, identify legislative authors, and develop an advocacy strategy. This plan has to be fluid given the potential for change – and surprise – throughout the legislative session.

The next steps in the process depend on the legislative schedule, which operates on a “biennium” (a two-year period corresponding to the state budget-setting cycle). During the first half of the biennium (an odd-numbered year) the legislature convenes in early January; during the second half (an odd-numbered year) the legislature convenes in early February. The number of days the legislature can meet in a biennium (120 days) and each year the session must end by 12 midnight on the Monday after the third Sunday in May, as set forth in the state’s constitution. MNCASA’s goal is to introduce bills as early as possible in the session in order to ensure they will be heard in the appropriate committees by the mid-session deadlines imposed by both bodies in our bicameral legislature: the House and Senate.

A bill author is sought in the House and the Senate. The bill language is sent to the revisor’s office so it can be put into the proper legal form and then the bill is introduced in the full House and Senate, where it is assigned a number and referred to a committee based on subject area. Depending on the bill, it may need to be heard in more than more committee, and if it carries any budget implications it must also progress through a finance committee. When a bill is presented to a committee, MNCASA provides expert testifiers to support the bill author, make statements and answer questions from the committee members. The bill can be amended in committee and then it is either approved or defeated. If it is approved it can move forward to the full House or Senate again, or on to another committee. During this process, sometimes bills are bundled with bills of similar subject matter as “omnibus” legislation.

Once a bill moves back to the House or Senate floor it can be amended the first time it comes up for a vote. After the House and Senate pass the bill it either goes to the governor for signature or veto, or to a conference committee for reconciliation if there are differences in the bill language passed by each body. If the conference committee report is approved in both bodies the bill is then forwarded to the governor for signature or veto. If the governor signs the bill it becomes a law. If it is vetoed the House and Senate can override the veto and the bill becomes law – or the bill simply dies.

MNCASA has been fortunate that several of its legislative measures have passed into law in recent years, including a change to the law that lists contact with semen or sperm in the criminal sexual contact definition and the inclusion of criminal sexual conduct by massage therapists as a felony. But MNCASA often runs into roadblocks as well – particularly when a bill comes with a fiscal note, meaning that enactment of the proposed law will incur costs for the state, specifically in terms of prison beds. During these tight budget times, any fiscal impact is considered a liability for a legislative proposal. When this happens, MNCASA often settles for the opportunity to have a discussion with lawmakers now – either individually or in a committee – and then wait for better economic times to push forward with bills that have financial consequences. This is where patience comes into the process – legislative change is not only complex at times but it can also be slow.

MNCASA urges all advocates against sexual violence to get involved with the legislative process. It can be as easy as making a phone call or emailing a legislator to express support for a bill, showing up to a legislative hearing to observe the proceedings or attending the annual Action Day to End Violence Against Women. Voices from the grassroots play a key role in legislative change. It is our hope that a better understanding of the challenges associated with enacting legislation will help make you an even better advocate for sexual violence prevention and system accountability.

To learn more about MNCASA’s public policy work please visit www.mncasa.org

Written by guest author Caroline Palmer, Staff Attorney at the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 29, 2010 1:16 am

    If I had a nickel for each time I came here.. Amazing read.

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