Concerning bill titles, and, in connection therewith, explaining everything you need to know about the single-subject and original purpose rules.

by Megan McCall

“And the coat rule is relaxed.” “The ayes have it and journal from the previous day is adopted.” “Does it fit under the bill title?” These are all frequently uttered phrases under the Dome, although the last might not be spoken with the same enthusiasm as the first two. The question of whether a matter fits under a bill title has undoubtedly come up a time or two for you during session and probably in a variety of contexts. It might have been a conversation with a bill drafter in the initial drafting of your bill, or perhaps the question has arisen in relation to evaluating an amendment request with a lobbyist or with another member of the General Assembly.

Section 21 of article V of the Colorado Constitution states that “No bill, except general appropriations bills, shall be passed containing more than one subject, which shall be clearly expressed in its title….” Many of your counterparts in other states also have to comply with their state’s single-subject rule, although notably Congress does not. The Colorado courts have specifically identified the desire to prevent “log-rolling” as a core tenet to the single-subject rule, meaning the rule is intended to prevent several unrelated measures that may not pass individually be joined together in order to garner a majority of votes for the combined measure. Courts have also identified an intention to prevent public surprise as another primary purpose for the rule. A bill’s title should sufficiently put the public on notice as to the contents of the legislation.

To comply with the nuances of the single-subject rule, bill titles may be drafted broadly or narrowly, and the compliance with the rule is a primary consideration for your drafter in the bill’s initial drafting stages. It is the custom of the OLLS to draft narrow or “tight” bill titles unless otherwise instructed by the bill’s sponsor. Sometimes a narrow bill title, however, is not possible based on the content a bill sponsor wants to cover in the bill. The Colorado Supreme Court consistently has held that generality in a title is not objectionable, and the Constitutional requirements are met if the matters contained in the bill are germane to the subject of the title. Thus a general, or a broad, bill title that describes the general subject matter of the bill should withstand scrutiny as long as the substance of the bill is germane to that title.

A bill with a broad title may include what is called a “trailer,” which is a way of providing additional information to the reader as to its specific contents. This trailer will list and describe the varying components of the bill. Trailers can be lengthy and although they are in bold font just like the bill title, they are not the title of the bill for purposes of the single-subject analysis. If a bill has a trailer, the best way to keep track of the bill title is to remember that the title is everything after the first word “Concerning” and before the phrase “…, and, in connection therewith,”.

Keeping a handle on the title of a bill is important as it is moving its way through the legislative process and amendments are offered to the bill, whether it is to your own bill or the bill of another member. This is in light of an ancillary constitutional provision in section 17 of article V that states that “No bill shall be so altered or amended on its passage through either house as to change its original purpose.” Meaning, just as the contents of an introduced bill must relate to the single-subject of the bill as evidenced in the title, so too must any amendments offered to the bill. Once a bill is introduced, the bill title cannot be amended to be made broader, as that would suggest the original purpose is being changed, or perhaps, that there is now more than one subject. A bill title can be amended to narrow its scope (although if narrowed, it can later be amended again to revert back to the original title). Bill trailers can always be amended, and frequently are, to add, revise, or remove specific descriptions of provisions impacted by the substance of amendments.

The drafter of a bill may advise a member that an amendment request may raise a title issue, meaning the substance of the amendment may not fit under the bill’s title. An amendment that falls outside the bill’s title may be challenged, and the question is ultimately decided by the chair of the committee of reference or of the committee of the whole, depending on when the amendment is offered, and is in the chair’s sole discretion.

Courts have jurisdiction to consider challenges to a bill’s compliance with the single-subject rule, but courts will generally defer to the judgment of the General Assembly when passing the bill. If the court finds a violation, only the portion of the bill that does not fit within the bill title will be held invalid. Additionally, the General Assembly passes a bill every regular session to enact the Colorado Revised Statutes, republished with all changes passed by bill in the preceding session, which has the effect of curing any title defects that may have existed within any bills passed in the prior session. Accordingly, single subjects are infrequently challenged.

For more information on bill titles and the single-subject rule, see the OLLS memo concerning bill titles.