Who can introduce bills? Legislators, mostly...

It’s an axiom, especially to those of us reared on “Schoolhouse Rock”: Bills originate in the legislative branch. That’s certainly the case throughout the Midwest — anyone can suggest a bill, but only legislators can introduce them for consideration.

Except in North Dakota. 

There, executive branch agencies and the judiciary can “pre-file” bills without legislative sponsors so they’re ready and waiting for legislators when new sessions begin.
North Dakota Rep. Nathan Toman wants to end that practice. His proposal, HB 1397, would bar executive branch agencies and the judicial branch from introducing bills in the legislature unless requested to do so by a legislative management or standing committee. Those branches would need to find a legislator sponsor, whose bill would have to indicate which agency asked for the introduction. Exceptions would be made for budgets prepared by the governor’s office or Office of Management and Budget. 
HB 1397 passed the House (48-44) on Feb. 21, but the Senate, on March 24, rejected it by a wide majority (4-43).
“It’s a separation of powers issue; we’re the legislative branch,” Toman says. “We should be submitting these.”
Opponents, primarily agency officials, say it would create another layer in the lawmaking process, and could unnecessarily complicate agencies’ reactions to changes in federal regulations. North Dakota is unique among Midwestern states in that its legislature still only meets once every two years. (Only three other U.S. states meet biennially rather than annually.) 
Introductory privileges 
North Dakota, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota let citizens introduce legislation via initiative petitions. For more information on citizen-initiated laws, please see the Capitol Closeup article in the February 2017 edition of Stateline Midwest.)
In Iowa, bills can be proposed by the executive or judicial branches for legislative sponsorship, but only legislators can sponsor bills. The governor and state agencies can also have ideas drafted for consideration under legislative standing committee sponsorship as either House or Senate “study bills”; if they get committee approval, these study bills are then introduced for regular consideration, with the committee serving as the sponsor. 
It’s much the same outside the Midwest: In almost every legislative chamber, a member is the only one who can introduce a bill, although Alaska allows the governor to introduce bills via the Legislature’s Rules Committees, and the Oregon House allows the governor and chief justice to introduce legislation on behalf of their respective branches on or before Dec. 15 of an even-numbered year. Even though Oregon’s Legislature meets annually, that privilege is a holdover from the days when it met every other year (in odd years), says Obie Rutledge, the House reading clerk. 
A curious exception to the “legislators-only rule” is in Massachusetts and its “Right of Free Petition,” a colonial-era legacy under which any citizen can introduce or refile a bill in the General Court of Massachusetts (the Legislature’s official name). 
This right dates back to the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties, and it was preserved in Article XIX of the Commonwealth’s 1780 Constitution: “The people have a right, in an orderly and peaceable manner, to assemble to consult upon the common good; give instructions to their representatives, and to request of the legislative body, by the way of addresses, petitions, or remonstrances, redress of the wrongs done them, and of the grievances they suffer.” 
These Massachusetts bills are often listed as filed “by request,” indicating that a legislator filed it at a citizen’s request but doesn’t necessarily support it.


Capital Closeup is an ongoing series of articles focusing on institutional issues in state governments and legislatures.
Stateline Midwest: April 20173.08 MB