The Devil is in the Details

“We have a hearing scheduled for this week,” I shared with a friend. She replied that she thought the Legislature was not in session and all the bills died.  “This is not a hearing about a bill,” I said. “It is a hearing on an administrative rule.”

“A hearing on an administrative rule? What’s a rule?” she asked me.

Just like a hearing on a bill, an administrative rule hearing is an opportunity for the public to provide input into the making of policy.  Last Thursday, the Senate Committee on Health, Human Services, Insurance and Job Creation convened to consider an administrative rule.

Often we hear the saying “the devil is in the details”. The rule making process is truly the details of legislation.

When a bill is passed the language is often broad and the details sketchy.  To implement or administer the new law or program, the Legislature gives the responsible state agency authority to create an administrative rule. State agencies use their expertise to develop the rule.  When finalized, an administrative rule has the force of law.

There is a specific procedure agencies follow to promulgate, or make public, a proposed administrative rule.  This procedure requires public hearings. Rules are sent to legislative committees for review.  The Legislature has final say over the proposed rule and the power resides with the committee chair.  He or she can call for a vote to send the rule back to the agency for changes or take no committee action and the rule becomes law.

I serve on the Health committee and our public hearing was on a controversial rule setting out specifics related to the regulation and licensing of mental health clinics. 

The hearing provided an opportunity for public discourse among committee members and mental health professionals and clinic owners from all over the state.

Testimony on the rule lasted nearly four hours and committee members learned about many positive aspects of the proposed rule and several serious flaws. 

Many at the hearing testified the proposed rule would put small mental health clinics and independent mental health professionals out of business.  In a letter to committee members, the Governor’s Small Business Regulatory Review Board indicated the state Department of Health Services did not adequately study the effect of the rule on small clinics and solo practitioners.

I received many letters from social workers, other mental health professionals and clinic administrators in our Senate District. Generally the letters have been critical of the administrative rule. In some cases, the consequences of the rule becoming law are dire.

After calling several folks who wrote me (yes, always remember to put your phone number on your letter when you write), I sent a letter with the concerns of those in our district to the committee Chair. He will meet with the agency responsible for writing the rules.

I sometimes hear of burdensome regulation. Invariably this regulation was crafted by an agency during the rule-making process.

When a new law requires creation of administrative rules, we as elected officials depend on citizens to let us know if the proposed rule fulfills the intent of the legislation.  This is particularly true if we do not serve on the committee providing oversight.

The Legislature decision-making is only as good as the information we have.  To make the process work, citizens must be participants and not just observers.  I thank the nearly 40 people who took time to contact me about this rule.  Their comments were influential in the policy debate. 

There is much work to be done and we each have a critical role to play.  Together we can continue to make a difference.

Concerned about administrative regulations? Let me know! Write Senator Kathleen Vinehout at the State Capitol P.O. Box 7882 Madison, Wisconsin 53707-7882 or 877-763-6636 (toll free).