Parsing Powers: Legislative Review of State Department Rules

by Julie Pelegrin

Each year, executive branch agencies in Colorado adopt between 400 and 500 sets of rules creating many thousands of pages of rules and accompanying materials. Specifically, in 2018 alone there were 457 sets of rules adopted. Counting the rules and corresponding materials,that totals up to 26,971 pages. That’s a lot of rules! And every one of those rules, along with the corresponding materials, was read and analyzed by a staff member of the Office of Legislative Legal Services (OLLS).

This rule review function provides an instructive example of how the vague constitutional concept of separation of powers actually works between the legislative and executive branches. The legislature has the authority to make the laws. But in some instances, it makes more sense for the persons working directly with a program to decide the implementing details. In those situations, the legislature delegates some of its legislative authority to an executive branch department, allowing it to adopt rules. However, in adopting rules, the department must comply with statutes and cannot go beyond the authority that the legislature delegated to it. To ensure this does not happen, the legislature retains the ability to review the executive branch department’s rules and approve only those rules that are within the department’s rule-making authority and do not conflict with state or federal law.

This process for reviewing and approving executive branch department rules is found in the State Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The APA requires each department to submit every rule that it adopts or revises within a one-year period to the OLLS for review under the supervision of the Committee on Legal Services (Committee). The standard of review is based on language in §24-4-103 (8) (a), C.R.S., which states, “No rule shall be issued except within the power delegated to the agency and as authorized by law.” The vast majority of rules meet these requirements. But sometimes a rule conflicts with a statute or the constitution or does not fit within the limits of the department’s rule-making authority. At that point, the Committee and the General Assembly turn to the process laid out in the APA.

The APA establishes a year-round cycle for reviewing rules.  Under §24-4-103 (8), C.R.S., rules adopted during the one-year period from November 1 through October 31 automatically expire on the next May 15, unless the General Assembly extends the rules by passing a bill.  This annual bill is called the Rule Review Bill and is sponsored by the Committee. This year, it’s introduced as S.B. 19-168. The Rule Review Bill postpones the automatic expiration of all of the adopted department rules, except for those rules listed in the bill that the Committee has decided should expire because the rules: 1) lack statutory authority, 2) exceed statutory authority, or 3) conflict with a state or federal statute or constitutional provision.

During the process of reviewing the rules, if the OLLS staff finds one of those three grounds for challenging a rule, the staff contacts the department to discuss the issues with the rule. If the department disagrees with the analysis or is unable to fix the problems identified with the rule, the staff schedules the rule issue for a hearing before the Committee. The OLLS staff writes a memo for the Committee explaining its analysis, and the department may also submit a responsive memo to the Committee.

At the hearing, the OLLS staff and if, they choose to appear at the hearing and make a presentation, the department staff or the department of law staff representing the department explain their positions to the Committee, and the Committee takes public testimony.  At the end of the hearing, the Committee votes to either extend the rule through the Rule Review Bill or allow the rule to expire. The Committee bases its decision on the legal question of the authority of the rule—not on whether the rule in question is good or bad policy for the state.  After the Rule Review Bill passes, the OLLS staff transmits the bill to the Secretary of State’s office, which removes any expired rules from the Colorado Code of Regulations.

Sometimes a department will seek a change to a statute to provide authority for a rule. The Committee will not carry a bill to do this, but if an individual legislator introduces and passes such a bill, the Committee will amend the Rule Review Bill so that the newly authorized rule does not expire.

Another legislative oversight function that the OLLS carries out relates to tracking legislation that requires or authorizes departments to adopt rules. Many legislators, after passing bills that create new programs, later ask, “Did the department ever adopt rules to implement my bill?” Section 24-4-103 (8) (e), C.R.S., requires the OLLS to identify rules related to newly enacted bills and notify prime sponsors and co-sponsors when the department adopts rules required or authorized by the new legislation. The OLLS sends out e-mail notices to prime sponsors and co-sponsors when the new rules are adopted.

But what if you want to know whether a department ever adopted rules to implement a bill you heard in a committee of reference?  Or what if you’re a legislator and you no longer have the e-mail notice?  Anyone can look up rule implementation information at any time on the OLLS’s homepage under a tab entitled Rule Review. The OLLS maintains a chart that is organized by committees of reference and lists each bill for which rules are adopted.  The chart also provides a link to the rule information that each department files during the rule adoption process.

Section 24-4-103 (8) (e), C.R.S., also requires the OLLS to notify the current members of the applicable committees of reference when these rules are adopted.  Each January, the OLLS sends an email notice to the committees of reference with the chart of rules that the OLLS has compiled.

So, while the legislature is willing, when appropriate, to delegate some of its authority to the executive branch by authorizing a department to adopt rules, the legislature keeps a close eye on how that authority is exercised, ensuring that the department stays within the lines.