When Does an Act Become a Law? It depends.

by Patti Dahlberg and Julie Pelegrin

Section 19 of article V of the state constitution specifies that an act takes effect “on the date stated in the act, or, if no date is stated in the act, then on its passage.” This seems simple enough. But there are other considerations question markand constitutional provisions that can affect when a bill eventually becomes law. To determine the date that a bill becomes law, you will need to read the last few sections of the bill to find the appropriate “clause.”

Effective date clauses:

It is common practice for a bill to state that it takes effect on a specific date, which may be several weeks or months after adjournment of the legislative session. This interval of time between the date that the bill is signed into law and the specified effective date allows state agencies, local governments, courts, and citizens to learn of the new law and make any required adjustments to comply with the new law. A typical effective date clause looks like this:

SECTION 20. Effective date. This act takes effect July 1, 2015.

Applicability clauses:

An applicability clause specifies that the new law will apply to certain events or transactions that occur on or after the effective date. An applicability clause can be used with either an effective date clause or a safety clause (see below). Applicability clauses are frequently used in criminal laws and other acts concerning contracts, contractual relationships, or court proceedings. The following are some common applicability sections:

SECTION 81. Effective date – applicability. This act takes effect November 1, 2015, and applies to offenses committed on or after said date.


SECTION 25. Applicability. This act takes effect upon passage and applies to fiscal years beginning on or after July 1, 2015. (Note: This applicability clause must be accompanied by a safety clause.)

Safety clauses and 90-day Petition Clauses:

Section 19 of article V of the state constitution says that a bill takes effect upon passage if it doesn’t specify an effective date. But section 1 of article V of the state constitution says that the people reserve to themselves the power to approve or reject at the polls all or any portion of an act passed by the General Assembly – generally referred to as the “referendum power.” To refer an act to the ballot, a citizen must submit a petition to the Secretary of State within 90 days after the General Assembly adjourns the legislative session.

Section 1 of article V also says that the people cannot refer an act to the ballot if the act is “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety….” To clearly identify an act that is not subject to the referendum power, the General Assembly will include in the act a safety clause:

SECTION 17. Safety clause. The general assembly hereby finds, determines, and declares that this act is necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, and safety.

If an act includes a safety clause, section 11 of article IV of the state constitution determines the date of passage. This section requires that every bill be presented to the Governor for approval or veto. A bill becomes law when signed by the Governor, when the Governor fails to act on the bill within the time allowed, or, in the case of a signed billvetoed bill, when the General Assembly overrides the Governor’s veto.

In the vast majority of cases involving a safety clause, the date of passage is the date of the Governor’s signature. For those bills that the Governor does not sign or veto, the date of passage is the day following the final date for the Governor to act on a bill presented to him or her. If the Governor vetoes a bill and the General Assembly overrides the veto, the date of passage is the date on which the second house passes the veto override motion.

The Colorado courts have held that the General Assembly is vested with the exclusive power to decide the appropriateness of using the safety clause. The question of including the safety clause in legislation is a matter of debate in the legislative process, and the courts will not review or question the General Assembly’s decision.

If the General Assembly decides a bill is not necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety, it doesn’t make sense for it to pass without a specified effective date and take effect upon passage only to have its effectiveness questioned 90 days later when a citizen turns in a petition to put the act on the ballot. To avoid this, in each bill that does not have a safety clause, the General Assembly includes a “90-day petition” clause. This clause is really a specialized type of effective date clause. The standard 90-day petition clause reads as follows:

SECTION 33. Act subject to petition – effective date. This act takes effect at 12:01 a.m. on the day following the expiration of the ninety-day period after final adjournment of the general assembly (August 5, 2015, if adjournment sine die is on May 6, 2015); except that, if a referendum petition is filed pursuant to section 1 (3) of article V of the state constitution against this act or an item, section, or part of this act within such period, then the act, item, section, or part will not take effect unless approved by the people at the general election to be held in November 2016 and, in such case, will take effect on the date of the official declaration of the vote thereon by the governor.

Bills usually default to the effective date specified in the 90-day petition clause, but they may have a different specified effective date, which must be later than 90 days after adjournment. In some cases, this date is many months into the future, sometimes even into the next year.

Fun Facts About Referendums:

  • The General Assembly can refer an act or part of an act to the people by substituting a referendum clause in place of the safety clause or 90-day petition clause. The bill then becomes a “referred bill,” and it is not subject to the Governor’s veto power.
  • The procedure by which the people can refer to themselves an act or part of an act passed by the General Assembly is often called a “recision referendum” or an “initiated referendum.”
  • According to General Assembly records, the last act that was referred to the ballot by petition of the people was in 1932. The act increased the tax on oleomargarine – and it was affirmed by the voters.
  • Appropriation acts for the support and maintenance of the departments of state and state institutions are not referable either by petition of the people or by an act of the General Assembly, even if the acts do not contain the safety clause.