By Julie Pelegrin
For the second year in a row, the General Assembly wrapped up the legislative session both early (if you’re looking at legislative days) and late (if you’re looking at the calendar). They started January 13, 2021, as required by the constitution, met for three days, then temporarily adjourned. When they returned on February 16, which normally would have been the 35th legislative day, they picked up counting with the 4th legislative day. So, while it may have felt like everything was running a month behind, the General Assembly was on track – or even a little ahead – for the remainder of the session. When they finally finished their work on June 8 – the 116th legislative day – the General Assembly adjourned sine die with four days of their maximum 120 calendar days to spare even though it was a month late compared to pre-pandemic sessions.
This strange calendar was again the result of being in session while the Governor’s statewide public health disaster emergency order was in place and operating under Rule 44 of the Joint Rules of the Senate and House of Representatives. While the General Assembly was meeting in January, one of the actions they took was passing Senate Joint Resolution 21-001, which adopted the joint rules of the 72nd General Assembly as the temporary joint rules of the 73rd General Assembly, but made a couple of important changes to Joint Rule 44. First, the House and the Senate amended the rule to state that it remains in effect so long as the Governor’s public health disaster emergency is in effect or until the Executive Committee terminates the operation of the rule. With this change, a majority of the members of the Executive Committee (the President, the Majority Leader, and the Minority Leader of the Senate; and the Speaker, Majority Leader, and Minority Leader of the House of Representatives) can decide that the General Assembly is no longer operating under the rule, regardless of whether the public health disaster emergency order is still in effect.
The other significant change to Joint Rule 44 affects how the legislative days are counted. During the 2020 legislative session, once the public health disaster emergency was declared and Joint Rule 44 came into effect, only those days on which one or both of the houses convened counted against the 120-day maximum. That meant that the weekends, when usually neither house convened, did not count, which significantly extended how late the session could continue into the year even if the General Assembly did not take a temporary adjournment. With the General Assembly’s changes to the rule, once the General Assembly convenes in a year in which Joint Rule 44 is in effect, every calendar day counts toward the 120-day maximum, unless both houses agree to temporarily adjourn for more than three days. So, the days during the temporary adjournment from January 16, 2021, through February 15, 2021, did not count, but once the house reconvened on February 16, every day counted.
In terms of introduced bills, this session was a little low compared to past years, but the pass rate was the highest in at least the last eight sessions. In all, 623 bills were introduced; 503 bills (81%) were enacted and 120 bills (19%) were killed. Of those bills that were enacted, as of June 17, the Governor had vetoed one bill, allowed two bills to become law without his signature, and signed approximately 250 bills. Almost half of the enacted bills are still waiting for the Governor’s action; he has until July 8 to either sign or veto them. At 12:01 a.m. on July 9th, any bills not acted on will become law without his signature.
Similar to last session, the remarkable thing about the 2021 session was not the total number of bills introduced, but the timeframe in which bills were introduced. Sixty-five bills were introduced after May 1, with just over a month left in the session. Fourteen of those bills were introduced with just two weeks left in the session. These late bills included the annual school finance bill and a separate bill to change the school finance funding formula; an almost 200-page transportation funding bill; several criminal law reform bills, including a 360-plus page bill on misdemeanor reform; a bill to modernize the public utilities commission; a bill to create a new department of early childhood; some climate change and energy bills; several significant tax reform measures; a prescription drug pricing bill; and several bills to spend millions of dollars in federal stimulus money. Suffice it to say, those final five weeks were busy.
Even with so many bills so late in the session, the General Assembly managed to adjourn four days early, a feat few thought they could achieve. And at this point, the General Assembly has no plans to return until the second regular session of the 73rd General Assembly convenes on January 12, 2022. Here’s hoping the 2022 legislative session will follow a more normal pattern…whatever that means.