The Connecticut General Assembly has twenty-five permeant legislative committees. When a legislator proposes a bill, it is submitted to a committee that has responsibility for the proposed bill’s subject matter. This is called referring the bill to the “committee of cognizance”. In this article we will lay out exactly how those referrals work and how it fits into the broader legislative process.
When a bill is first introduced it is sent to the clerk of the chamber of the sponsoring legislator for numbering, titling, and printing in the journals. After that, the legislator works in conjunction with their attorneys to determine the proper committee to refer the bill. The committee then screens the proposed bills it receives. Screening is usually done by the committee chairpersons with input from other committee members (typically ranking, or more senior members). The House and Senate also have separate, informal screening committees who determine when a proposal is ready for floor action in the respective chamber. Sometimes those committees also weigh-in on where to refer a proposal based on the committees’ cognizance as well as political factors, such as its likelihood to pass in one committee over another.
All bill proposals must survive screening to make it onto a committee agenda for further action. In screening, legislators contemplate both the political and the procedural nature of the bills in consideration. So screening members weigh what topics they want to address based on the current political climate, as well as if the proposals before them are in the proper committee of cognizance. Based on their determinations they can recommend particular action to their committee members, such as a change of reference or a JF motion. As with all of the legislature’s rules, there are always ways to circumvent them. If a proposal does not survive screening, members may vote to open the agenda in a committee meeting in order to add the proposal for further action.
Even when a proposal survives screening, a committee may still conclude that a particular bill belongs elsewhere. The purview of the committees is not always clear, and they have topic areas that are intentionally broad in scope and inevitably overlap. To move a bill to another committee, members may make a motion of a “straight change of reference” to another committee of cognizance. After the referral motion is made, the committee votes on it just like any other committee action. One type of referral is actually built into the process and doesn’t require a change of reference motion. Any bill that carries a fiscal note must pass through the Appropriations Committee. So, if an education related proposal requires funding it must first pass in the Education Committee, and then again in Appropriations.
Some measures that require legislative action have such obvious overlap between committees that the legislature may elect to convene a joint committee meeting. For example, last week’s meeting to approve the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) required approval from the Appropriations, Energy and Technology, and Human Services Committees, who all convened in a joint meeting to approve the plan.
Understanding the referral process is crucial for advocates at all levels. If you’re dealing with a proposal that has a fiscal note, you need to know that it will ultimately have to pass in Appropriations. And just like legislators, advocates must always consider if proposal is more likely to pass in one committee over another. Furthermore, screening members and committees have a lot of undefined political power, and sometimes engaging those legislators can be the difference between a proposal passing or failing.