Thursday, February 17, 2011

The opacity of the legislative process

I've been reading through, weeding through a number of legislative bills to decide which to feature in this blog. Besides the criterion of wetlands I'm looking for bills that will have legs and get somewhere. Not so easy to determine. Not just because no one can predict what bills will gain political momentum and be voted into law. The General Assembly has its own signals for which bills are "for show." Perhaps you always knew this. It was news to me when Representative Linda Gentile, co-chair of the Planning & Development Committee of the General Assembly, spoke before the attorneys in the Planning & Zoning Section of the CT Bar Association two nights ago.

The dialogue between members of the Bar section and Rep. Gentile began innocuously enough. When questioned by a land use attorney as to whether anyone screens the bills to remove the ones that solve non-existent problems (e.g., a bill to remove the requirement for public hearings with site plan approvals when no such requirement exists), she answered it with a twist: some bills are filed by legislators at the request of constituents which the legislator has no expectation will pass, and perhaps no inclination to pursue. The bill is given life, however brief, to show the legislator's attentiveness to constituent requests. But not to worry, Rep. Gentile, told us, the rest of them don't spend a lot of time on these bills. They are coded so that no one gets overly exercised. Somewhere the bill is marked "by request." That is the signal shall we say, to ignore the bill. That is, it is a signal to the legislators. I have not been able to find the "by request" designation on the Connecticut General Assembly's website which is an excellent tool for accessing the status of pending bills. She indicated another sign that a legislator is doing constituent work, meaning not pursuing the bill: when a legislator submits a letter to the chair of the committee copied to the constituent who requested it . . . a veritable kiss of death.

The problem is the public doesn't know which bills are faux bills. They are scheduled for public hearing. Why? If a legislator requests it, she explained, it is hard to turn down the request as she may be seeking the same consideration in the future. So, advocates who are truly interested in the bill may get caught up in the drama of a public hearing only to find the actors mere facades. This may only be known in retrospect, if at all.

For the next few weeks I will highlight some of the bills in which the content would bring about a change if passed. Will I be wasting your time on bills with no trajectory? Well, at least I won't be intentionally wasting your time.

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