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How to Find Legislative Documents and Follow the Legislative Process

The legislative process is complex and, to the outsider, can be something of a mystery. How does the citizen follow that process? How do you know what is happening on a particular topic? How do you follow the progress of a particular bill? How do you know when a public hearing will be held? Not that many years ago, this was a difficult task.  Businesses and associations hired lobbyists to handle this for them, and citizens had relatively little access to this information. However, with the advent of the Internet and development of the Legislature’s home page, among other resources, this task has become much easier. Information about the activities of the Legislature is now more readily available to all.

GETTING STARTED

THE LEGISLATURE'S HOME PAGE

Although there are other sources of information, this guide focuses on the Legislature’s home page because of the wealth of information it contains. It can be found at http://legis.wisconsin.gov. The home page is shown in the following figure. It will be referred to throughout this guide, though not all features of the home page will be described in detail.

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In the center of the home page is a photograph of the State Capitol. (You see a different photograph of the Capitol each time you visit the home page.) To the left of the photograph is a column of tabs with fly-out menus. The second and third tabs provide links to various information about the Senate and the Assembly, including the home pages of each individual Senator and Representative and information about Senate and Assembly committees. Other tabs provide links to information about joint legislative committees, legislative service agencies, Wisconsin law and legislation, and various other types of information regarding the Legislature. At the bottom of this column is a quick search function for finding the text and history of bills and other legislative proposals.

Below the picture are three links, labeled Documents, Who Represents Me? and Notification Service. We will explore these in later sections. To the right of the picture are links to information about legislative sessions, committee calendars, and the like.

THE LEGISLATIVE DOCUMENTS PAGE

If you click on the Documents link below the picture on the home page, you will see the Legislative Documents page, shown in the following figure.

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At the top of this page there is a general search function, below which are several gray-shaded boxes. The first two boxes on the left side of the page deal with current law: the first box deals with the Wisconsin Statutes and Constitution; the second box deals with the Wisconsin Administrative Code (the rules promulgated by executive branch agencies to implement the statutes). The last box on the left and the first box on the right deal with legislation of the current legislative session. The second box on the right includes other miscellaneous documents, such as Executive Orders of the Governor and formal Opinions of the Attorney General. The last box provides links to archives of all of this information--statutes, rules, and legislation--from previous sessions plus bill drafting files and other items.​

USING THE HOME PAGE AND DOCUMENTS PAGE

There are multiple ways to find most any type of information on the Legislature’s Internet site, starting with the general search function on the Legislative Documents page.

HOW DO I USE THE GENERAL SEARCH FUNCTION?

You can use the general search function to find information regarding specific topics, specific sections of the statutes, or specific bills. It is located on the Legislative Documents page, in the first box on the right side.

If you want to find information regarding renewable energy, for example, type the words “renewable energy” in the box and click “search.” You will get approximately 1,700 results. On the right side of the results page is a box that allows you to limit your search, by type of document, legislative biennium or session, and other criteria. If you are looking for bills relating to renewable energy, click “Text of Legislation” and you now have fewer than 150 results. If you are looking for statutes relating to renewable energy, click “Statutes” to see the relevant statutes; or, you can scroll to the bottom of the “Limit your search” box to find the 10 sections of the statutes and Administrative Code with the most occurrences of the words “renewable” and “energy.” 

Note that bills and laws contain many references to other laws. Following these references is essential to understanding what you are reading. In the documents found through this search function, most of the references are live links that will take you to the referenced provisions.

Explore this search function and you will find that it is a powerful tool to research many types of legislative documents.

HOW DO I FIND THE STATUS AND TEXT OF A BILL?

The home page contains an easy-to-use tool to find the text and status of legislation, if you know the number. It is found in the lower-left corner of the page, under the heading Request text and history of legislative proposals. Simply fill in the form and either click the “Submit” button or hit “Enter” on your keyboard. Note that the database this tool uses includes information for all general and special sessions of the Legislature going back to the 1995 Biennium. A special session is identified by the year and month in which the session was called by the Governor.

This tool actually gives you far more than just the text and history of a bill. If the bill was passed and signed by the Governor, you will get a link to the final, published act, as well as a link to a brief memorandum by the Legislative Council describing it (labeled “LC Act Memo”). If the bill was amended, you will get a link to the text of the amendments and a link to the Legislative Council amendment memo. In addition, you will get links to fiscal estimates submitted by state agencies affected by the legislation, the record of committee proceedings, and information about lobbying on the bill, prepared by the Government Accountability Board.

HOW DO I FIND A BILL IF I DON’T KNOW THE BILL NUMBER?

Use the general search function on the Legislative Documents page, described earlier, to find the number of a bill. Use search terms that either describe the subject or that you think are likely to be found in the bill. If you are not able to find the bill number this way, your legislator’s office may be able to help you. If you do not know who your legislator is, use the Who Represents Me? function on the home page to find out.

HOW DO I TRACK A BILL THROUGH THE LEGISLATIVE PROCESS?

The Wisconsin State Legislature has a legislative notification service that allows anyone to track the progress of legislation and the activities of the Legislature and legislative committees. A user specifies what topics he or she wants to follow and the service notifies the user of developments related to the specified topics.

To activate this service, click on Notification Service below the picture in the center of the home page. You will first need to create an account. Once you have an account, you must specify what you want to track. The service then provides daily e-mail notices of key events affecting legislation you are tracking, such as the scheduling of a bill for a public hearing, an executive session (committee vote), or debate in the full house. The Help tab provides instructions in how to use the service.

The service offers four ways to track legislative activities:
  • ​By subject. This option is under development. Once available, it will allow you to identify legislation by subject, based on key words, which you can then track. 
  • By proposal (bill number). This option allows you to track specific bills. There is a search box, used to designate the bills you are interested in. The bills you have selected are then listed in a second box. This list provides useful information about the bills, including the relating clause (bill subject) and links to the bill text and history.
  • By committee. This option allows you to track the activity of specific committees. The design is similar to that of the proposals page. The list of committees the user selects includes a roster of committee members and links to the committee’s web page and a schedule of the committee’s activity.
  • By author. This option is also under development. Once available, it will allow users to track all legislation introduced by selected legislators.
RSS feeds are another tool that allows you to track some, but not all legislative activity. They are a particularly good way to track the progress of an individual bill. Look for the RSS symbol ---- on an Internet page displaying the bill text, bill history, or other information about the bill. Click on this symbol and then click on “Subscribe to this feed.” Updated information on the subject of the feed you have selected will automatically be downloaded to your computer as it becomes available. Click on “Learn more about feeds” in the feed subscription box to learn how to use them.

HOW DO I FIND OUT ABOUT A PUBLIC HEARING ON A BILL?

The best way to find out about a public hearing on a bill is through the legislative notification service, described in the preceding section. However, hearings sometimes are scheduled with very little notice. As a backup to the notification service, you can call the office of the chair of the committee that will hold the hearing and ask for the committee clerk. The clerk may be able to tell you when the chair intends to hold a hearing.

HOW DO I FIND INFORMATION ABOUT THE BUDGET BILL?

The budget bill is a massive document, many hundred pages in length, affecting all of state government and many other subjects. The best way to find information about it is to use the Internet site of the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB), the agency that assists the Legislature through this process. From the Legislative Service Agencies tab on the left side of the Legislature’s home page, select Legislative Fiscal Bureau. The Publications tab gives a drop-down menu with three choices related to the budget bill (among other choices):
  • Current Budget (e.g., 2013-15 Budget) This page links to summaries of the budget and other descriptive documents. At each step of the process, from the submission of agency budget requests to introduction of the budget, through the amendment process, to the Governor’s signature on the final budget, the LFB prepares a summary of the bill, comparing it to prior versions.
  • Budget Papers. The LFB also prepares a separate paper for each provision in the budget, describing the provision, giving background analysis, and offering alternatives for consideration by the Joint Committee on Finance. There are several hundred of these papers for each budget.
  • Prior Budgets. This choice provides some or all of the same information for prior budgets, going back to the 1995-97 Budget.
​The text of the final enacted budget, with vetoes, is directly accessible with its own link on the home page--look at the bottom of the column of tabs on the right side.

HOW DO I FIND CURRENT LAW?

The Legislative Documents page is the best place to start your research of current Wisconsin law. While you could use the general search function, described earlier, you may prefer to use the sections of that page titled Statutes and Administrative Code. Here, you have the option of either browsing within the various resources or conducting key word searches of them.

HOW DO I OBSERVE THE LEGISLATURE IN SESSION?

There are at least three ways you can watch a session of the Legislature. First, on the right side of the home page, you can click on Senate Session or Assembly Session. On the right side of the screen that opens, you will have video coverage of the session. On the left side, you will find a calendar for the day’s session. Along with this calendar are links to many documents related to the bills being considered--the bills themselves and any amendments, fiscal estimates, and various reports and analyses relating to the bills.

A second way to observe a legislative session is on WisconsinEye, a public affairs network that broadcasts all legislative sessions and many legislative committee meetings, and much more relating to state and local government in Wisconsin. You can watch WisconsinEye online at http://www.wiseye.org. In addition, you may be able to view it on your local cable television service.

The third, and perhaps best, way to observe the Legislature is to come to the Capitol in Madison and sit in the gallery of the Senate or Assembly to watch the proceeding from close up.

WHAT ELSE CAN I LEARN FROM THE LEGISLATURE’S HOME PAGE?

On the right side of the home page is a series of resources related to Legislative Activity. The links in this list provide the following:
  • A summary of the two-year legislative calendar.
  • A calendar of scheduled committee meetings.
  • A digest of current legislative activities, called the Spotlight.
  • Statistics relating to the activities of the current legislative session.

OTHER SOURCES OF INFORMATION

LEGISLATIVE SERVICE AGENCIES

Five nonpartisan professional agencies support the Legislature, four of which produce a wide range of reports and documents. Their respective home pages can be reached through the Legislative Service Agencies tab on the Legislature’s home page.
  • The Legislative Council prepares brief descriptions of all amendments adopted and all bills enacted into law, identified as amendment memos and act memos. It also prepares a Legislator’s Briefing Book each session, which provides an overview of a wide range of subjects that come before the Legislature. It also produces informational memoranda on topics of current interest.
  • The Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) conducts audits of state agencies and state programs, and publishes its findings and recommendations in audit reports.
  • The LFB, as already noted, prepares extensive materials regarding the state budget. In addition, it produces a series of informational papers, which provide in-depth descriptions of state programs, with a particular emphasis on the fiscal aspect of the programs.
  • The Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB) produces the Wisconsin Blue Book each biennium. This is a very detailed compendium of information about state and local government in Wisconsin, as well as other topics. In addition, the LRB produces several series of publications on a variety of topics. The LRB also maintains a reference library relating to the Legislature at One East Main Street, in Madison.
One more source of information on the Legislature’s home page is the Legislative Process tab. Under this tab, you will find two detailed articles on the legislative process in Wisconsin, a Visitor’s Guide to the Capitol, information on lobbying in Wisconsin, and links to other legislative sites, in Wisconsin, in other states, and in Congress. 

                                                                                               
WISCONSIN LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL
One East Main Street, Suite 401 • P.O. Box 2536 • Madison, WI  53701-2536
(608) 266-1304 • Fax: (608) 266-3830 • Email:  leg.council@legis.wisconsin.gov
http://www.legis.wisconsin.gov/lc​
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