Where the real work gets done

Delays in completing the budget have pushed legislative work back. With the budget passed, committee work is moving forward in earnest. Committees in the legislature are where the real work gets done.

When a bill comes to the Senate floor for a vote, much of the time Senators know the outcome of the vote before it happens. That is because of all the work done by a committee.

All legislators are assigned to committees. Some are small, some are quite large. Most of the committees in the Senate are very active. All of them share something in common.

Committees are the gatekeepers for legislation. Every bill is assigned to a committee. And the committee can decide whether the bill lives or dies.

Committees are organized by topic. Any idea you can imagine has a committee. Currently, the legislature is considering hundreds of different bills - from text messaging while driving to taking photos of someone in a locker room. By the end of the term, nearly two thousand bills will be introduced. The committees help bring order to the chaos.

I serve on five committees; covering topics that include prisons and courts, economic development, health and human services, agriculture, universities, and fair taxes. Sometimes, because the Senate is so small and the topics so vast, unrelated areas are combined. I chair the committee on agriculture and higher education. It happens that these are two areas where I have some expertise.

Committees serve the people. The committee gives people a look at what might become law. The committee also gives the people an opportunity to offer opinions.

It is rare that someone who drafts legislation considers all possible impacts of the new proposal. This is why public hearings are so critical. People need a chance to talk over all different angles of an idea. Usually all those affected by the bill can comment during the hearing.

When a hearing is held, rules must be followed. A certain order of those testifying is followed. Senators sponsoring the bill testify first. Those testifying answer questions but cannot ask the committee questions. I have been in committees where those testifying came prepared to quiz senators on how much they knew – thinking perhaps that a person testifying before a committee could be the teacher and quiz the students.

But the committee chair politely reminded the person their role was to provide information, not to ask for it. The role of one testifying is much closer to that of a witness in a courtroom rather than a teacher. And the committee chair will remind us of that.

This week I will join four committees on which I serve and hear or vote on twenty six different bills. The bills range from the mundane – filing forms or meeting deadlines, to the serious – penalties for drunk driving and penalties for strangulation.

Some of these bills have undergone intense public scrutiny. Some involved hearings that lasted four or five hours. Some will receive a hearing, but because of problems brought to light during the hearing, will never receive a vote. If they are up for a vote, again the public must be notified. This is done through an “Executive Session”.

Much of the real work of committees is routine and not controversial. Times change and laws need to be updated. Federal laws change and the state laws need to reflect those changes. An idea from a few years ago didn’t work as well in real life as the author might have thought. Two bills are passed that conflict; a new bill is necessary to fix the conflict.

People contact me quite frustrated when they find themselves caught in a tangle of red tape. The situation isn’t good. Sometimes this type of situation actually provides a red flag for the legislature to get back to work. And frequently that work is going to end up in a committee.

Have an idea on something that needs to be fixed? Let me know! Write: State Capitol; P.O. Box 7882 Madison, WI 53707-7882 or sen.vinehout@legis.wisconsin.gov; call Black River Falls (715) 284-1730; or Madison at (877) 763-6636 (toll free). Miss a column? Visit my website at http://www.legis.state.wi.us/senate/sen31/news/