You’ve just heard that your state legislature is about to pass a bill that amends the anti-cruelty statute, and you’re excited to see what the new law will do. So you study the bill…but have no idea what you are looking at. There’s some normal text, but it’s broken up by crossed-out words and sentences. Additionally, there are chunks of text in capital letters and italics. The bill is also divided into different sectionswhat does it all mean? How can you take a position on this piece of legislation if you have no idea what you are looking at?
Don’t panic. While every legislative body operates by its own rules and traditions, there are general guidelines for understanding how legislation is written that will serve you in most situations at both the local and state levels.
We need your help when legislation affecting animals comes up in your local community or state capitol. By understanding these simple legislative basics, you can be an important part of the effort to protect animals from cruelty and abuse.
Working with Preexisting Legislation
You might be surprised to learn that most legislation isn’t written from scratchrather, it adjusts existing law either by modifying language, adding or deleting language, or a combination of these actions. There is no limit to the number of changes that may be made to the text of an existing law, but the law being modified should be relevant to the new goalhaving to do with animals alone is not enough. For instance, you would not attempt to add language on greyhound racing to a law that specifically regulates animal shelters.
Say your goal is to ban long-term dog chaining, also known as tethering. There may be several ways to accomplish this goal, and one way would be to amend your state’s animal cruelty statute (every state already has one). Your bill might:
add definitions for tethering or inhumane confinement,
modify existing language explaining proper care, and
delete a section that mentions the need to restrain a dog that was written in less humane language, so your new language does not conflict with it.
In some cases, bills do nothing but delete existing language, adding no new language. (I.e., your bill deletes existing language in a law specifying that stray animals must be euthanized after three days. By deleting that language, shelters may now hold stray animals for a longer period of time. Or you delete language that prohibits animal control from inspecting breeding facilities, thereby opening the door for future inspections.)
Of course, there are times when a pending measure is not relevant to any existing code or statute, so the entire bill would be new language written from scratch and inserted into existing law as a new section.
All bills in the same legislative body use a consistent system for bill-drafting purposes. As a general rule:
Wording that is in normal typeface will remain in the law and is not to change at all.
Language that is ALL CAPS, bold or italics indicates new language to be added to the law.
Wording that has
strikethroughsis to be deleted.
The Basic Layout of a Bill
At the top of a piece of legislation are the bill’s number, the legislative body (e.g., House or Senate, City or County Council), its date of introduction, and its sponsor and possibly co-sponsors.
Most bills have a title and a stated purpose or goal. Some bills have a preamble, which usually consists of a series of “Whereas” clauses explaining how the legislation will solve a specific problem. (This section is not actually part of the law.) The section of the law to be created or modified is referenced here.
Next comes the main part of the bill that provides actual language for your desired law. Your bill may be a few words or pages of text.
Optional Parts of a Bill
Often needed, but not always included, are the following sections:
Once passed, when does a law go into effect? This may be 30, 60, or 90 days later, January 1 or July 1 of the following year, or immediately upon passage. (It’s often easier to get a bill passed if the effective date is later rather than sooner, thus providing time for those impacted to comply.) Sometimes a “sunset provision” that repeals the law is included. For example, a municipal bill requiring all dogs and cats to be sterilized could be enacted with a sunset provision that would automatically repeal it in five years, when the local pet overpopulation levels are expected to have stabilized. Sometimes a sunset provision allows a bill to get through that otherwise would certainly be defeated.
Key points need to be defined to avoid ambiguities. For instance, what is meant by humane care, adequate shelter, feral cat, torture, etc? This section is extremely important if a law is to be effective.
If your new law requires the enactment of regulations to spell out the fine points, you must direct it the necessary state agency to promulgate (write) them. Make sure to include a time-table for this work. For example, if pet stores must provide documentation on where they obtain the animals they sell, the state’s consumer agency would be given regulatory authority to establish rules on how the paperwork and inspections will be conducted.
Budget concerns almost always exist, so in many situations you will need to provide information on how much a bill will cost to implement before it is even considered for passage. If the government will be required to spend funds, a level of spending must be authorized, meaning permission to spend the money is given. Once spending is authorized, a separate step occurs later to actually “appropriate” (provide) the funds. And even though $5,000 is authorized to be spent, the legislature could choose to actually appropriate only $2,500. Keep in mind that legislation that looks good on its face may, in reality, be useless unless funds have been authorized and appropriated for enforcement.
Sometimes a certain group is exempted from a new law because of existing conditions that contradict it. For example, a municipality might enact a dog breed ban or a limit on the number of pets a person can own. In order to not displace pets who already have homes, the law might include a “grandfather clause” that stipulates that it applies only to the future acquisition of the regulated animals; people who already own a dog of the banned breed or animals in excess of the new limit at the time of the law’s passage are exempted. However, when those “grandfathered-in” animals pass away, that’s the end of the exemption for their owners, who are not entitled to acquire new animals in defiance of the law.
If no penalty is included, your law doesn’t have much bite. It is better than nothing, but operates more as a guideline than a law. Of course, you may not need to include a penalty if your language was added to existing law that already includes a penalty.
Whenever possible, deliberate animal abuse should be a felony offense. The same level penalty can apply, or the penalties may increase upon a second or third violation. Also, you can specifically state that a violation occurs to each animal involved. (I.e., if a kennel worker abuses 63 dogs, the law could stipulate that each animal involved constitutes a separate offense. So if the penalty is a $100 fine, instead of the abuser having to pay just $100, he or she would be fined $6,300.)
If you have questions about how the legislative process works in a specific legislative body, ask a staff person or an elected official for a free citizen handbook that explains the system under which it operates.