Single Subject Requirement Prevents a Multitude of Evils

by Julie Pelegrin

Because of the legislative rules you can only introduce five bills. But, you have eight issues that really need to be addressed in legislation. Why not combine a few of them and accomplish more in less time with less hassle? While it sounds efficient, it might also be unconstitutional.

Section 21 of article V of the State Constitution states: “No bill, except general appropriation bills, shall be passed containing more than one subject, which shall be clearly expressed in its title…”. This is one of the original sections in the Colorado constitution. It took effect August 1, 1876, and has never been amended. The Colorado Supreme Court has interpreted and applied this section of the constitution several times in the last 136 years and has repeatedly identified three main problems it is intended to prevent: log-rolling, public surprise, and restrictions on the Governor’s veto power.

The state’s early politicians wanted to prevent the practice of “log-rolling”: Putting several unrelated measures in one bill, none of which have enough support to pass on their own but, when combined, can garner a majority of votes. Each measure should be able to pass on its own merits and not depend on legislative support for other, unrelated measures to achieve the required vote tally of 33, 18, and one for passage. At the federal level, members of Congress can take a bill that’s about pure water and add amendments to increase the penalty for kidnapping, lower the allowable tonnage for interstate shipping, and prohibit public schools from giving students aspirin. In Colorado this cannot happen, thanks to section 21 of article V.

The Colorado Supreme Court has also found that the single-subject requirement is intended to prevent the public from being surprised about what’s in a bill. When a bill’s title clearly states its contents, anyone interested in the subject is on notice to read that bill. A person doesn’t have to worry about reading every bill to ensure that, as the Court put it in an 1893 opinion, “nothing objectionable is coiled up within the folds of the measure.” The Court has also been adamant that a bill’s subject is to be clear so that the connection between a bill’s title and the bill’s contents is “within the comprehension of the ordinary intellect as well as the trained legal mind.”

Finally, the Supreme Court has interpreted the single subject requirement as being necessary to allow the Governor to exercise veto power. The constitution authorizes the Governor to veto any bill that he or she does not approve of. However, the Governor must veto the entire bill, unless the bill is an appropriations bill embracing distinct items, in which case the Governor may exercise what’s called the “line-item veto” and veto one or more of the distinct items. It’s important to note that the single subject requirement does not apply to an appropriations bill that is subject to the line-item veto. It applies to those bills that the Governor can veto only in their entirety.

In the most recent case in which the Supreme Court held that a bill did not meet the single subject requirement, the Court specifically noted that the single subject requirement enables the Governor to consider each “single subject of legislation separately and independently” in deciding whether to veto a bill.

In this case, the General Assembly included 46 sections in one bill entitled “Concerning An Increase In The Availability of Moneys To Fund Expenditure Priorities For The 1987 Regular Session Of The General Assembly Through Reallocation Of Funds, Program Cuts, Expenditure Reductions, Use Of Revenue From Unclaimed Property, And Increases In Fees.” While some sections of the bill directly impacted revenues by increasing fees or decreasing state contributions, other sections made policy changes that were designed to decrease state costs. The Court agreed with the General Assembly’s position that all of the sections were somehow connected to the single subject of increasing revenue, but the Court found that the bill contained more than one subject because the varied sections related to many diverse subjects that were more significant than just increasing revenue. The Court held that the bill was similar to an appropriations bill; all of the sections were somehow about money, but that wasn’t enough of a connection to make it a single subject. Trying to include all of these sections in one bill would therefore defeat the Governor’s ability to effectively exercise veto power, so the Court found that the bill violated the single-subject requirement.

None of this is to say that a legislator cannot introduce a bill with a broad title. A title such as “An Act Relating To Municipal Corporations” (Breene at 405, 4) or “An Act Concerning Education” is constitutional, so long as each of the sections of the bill is germane to the title. In an early case, the Colorado Supreme Court adopted Webster’s definition of “germane” as “meaning ‘closely allied’ or ‘relevant.'”  In this case, the Court upheld the constitutionality of a bill entitled “An Act Relating To Intoxicating Liquors And Providing Penalties For The Violation Thereof” and upheld the defendant’s conviction for operating a still, an act criminalized in the bill.

Of course, if you choose a broad title for your bill, you may be inviting myriad amendments that fit under the title but do not fit your goals for the legislation. Crafting a title that covers all of the issues included in the bill, but that protects against unwanted amendments, is usually the most prudent course.

For more information, see the OLLS memo: Bill Titles – Single Subject and Original purpose Requirements.