How to Pass a Law

There Ought to Be a Law


The primary reasons animal protection bills fail to become law are unrealistic ideas about how the legislative process works and an unrealistic assessments of the time and energy it takes to pass a bill.

We hope to assist advocates for animals in planning and carrying through a well-conceived, effective legislative campaign. Although the legislative process varies from state to state and from town to town, the guidelines in this publication can be used in almost every type of governmental process to introduce, lobby for, and pass bills or ordinances affecting animals. For specifics on how your town, city, county or state government works, contact your local League of Women Voters, Statehouse, or town or city hall.

Successful Legislative Campaigns

Many animal protection bills have never moved beyond the draft or introduction stage simply because the individual or organization that offered the bill to its elected officials failed to look at it as a campaign. We will take you step by step through a successful legislative campaign. Although we cannot guarantee that everyone who follows these steps will succeed in having a bill passed, we can guarantee that you will reduce the amount of frustration and heartache you suffer when using this guide. You will also gain respect among the elected officials you worked with which may lead to success the next time.

Before Filing a Bill

Before you even attempt to file a bill, it is imperative that you define and document the problem. Start by collecting data that illustrates the problem. For instance: if you are trying to outlaw the carrying of unsecured dogs in the back of open pick-up trucks, start with the veterinary community in your area.  Ask them how many animals they treat each year that have been thrown from or jump out of moving pick-up trucks. What is the extent of injuries suffered by the animals? How much did it cost to treat the animal? Were the costs so high and the injuries so extensive that the owners chose to euthanize the pets? You might try sending out a survey to your local or state veterinary association's members asking them to help you document the problem. Ask yourself if there is another way of resolving the problem.

Passing new laws is usually a long and tedious process.  Can regulations be amended instead? Could the affected industry's policies or guidelines be changed? Could a public relations or education campaign put enough pressure on the offending parties to make them change? Try other approaches before you decide to go the legislative route. Document your attempts to handle things by non-legislative means. You will usually be asked by your bill's potential sponsors if you have attempted other avenues of resolution.

If you decide to file legislation, contact surrounding states or towns to find out if they already have a law on the issue.  If they do, ask them to send you copies.  Elected officials sometimes shy away from being the "first" to try out a new concept.  If you can document that other states or localities have already passed similar legislation, your elected officials may feel more comfortable filing or supporting your bill.

Determine who will be impacted by a new law.  If there are other communities that might support your legislative endeavors, identify them early in the campaign.  Broad-based coalitions not only impress sponsors and carry more weight, they help spread the work around.  Even though you may not agree with other organizations on some issues, if you can find common ground in one area, work together toward that shared goal.

You need not only to know who your allies are, but also who potential adversaries are on an issue.  Knowing your opposition's objections to your proposal in advance allows you time to counter their arguments.  In some instances, you may be able to make small changes that will appease the opposition or negate their arguments.   

Drafting a Bill

It's not always necessary to reinvent the wheel when drafting legislation. Start by taking a look at statutes that are similar. To find these laws, visit the library and look in the law book section. Most libraries will have not only your own state's laws, but of surrounding or neighboring states as well.  If you can't find anything in your library, contact a law school near your home to see if they can help out.

If you are fortunate enough to be connected to an on-line computer service such as Westlaw or Lexis, you can track many more laws than you can by visiting a library. But on-line services are expensive, and unless you funding for the service charge, seek information elsewhere.  Most national humane organizations, including the MSPCA, are familiar with animal protection laws in the United States and will gladly share information with you.

Contact other humane societies or animal control facilities who sponsored similar laws. Ask them for their experience in lobbying for passage of the law. Who were their allies? Who were their opponents? How long did it take to pass the bill? How has the enforcement of the law gone? Have there been any legal challenges to the law? How much has it cost to administer the law? All of these questions are important but none more so than the ones relative to costs. Legislators are extremely reluctant to pass any new law which carries even a small fiscal note. And asking the state or county or city to pay for a new animal control or protection program is virtually impossible, even if you have a dedicated revenue source built into the bill. Bills that have a fiscal note are also likely destined to be heard by an additional committee during the legislative process.

If your bill will cost the state or local government money, look for creative ways to pay for the program and include the review source in the bill. For instance, if you are trying to establish a low cost spay/neuter program for your area, there are a variety of ways to pay for the program. Many states have special automobile license plates that can be purchased for a slightly higher fee than the normal plate costs. The additional revenue is dedicated to a spay/neuter fund.   Other states have laws which require adopters from shelters and humane societies to post a deposit to insure that animals are spayed or neutered. Unclaimed deposits and fines for failure to comply with spay/neuter laws are channeled to a low cost spay/neuter program.  Some areas have used differential license fee's revenue to pay for sterilization programs.

Whether you include a revenue scheme in your bill or not, make sure you thoroughly review the fiscal note assigned to it by the finance or ways and means committee.  Many a bill has been killed outright by an inflated fiscal note which may be highly exaggerated.  If you find that the estimated cost to implement your bill has been grossly overstated, you can sometimes get the committee to rewrite the fiscal note if you offer documented proof of the correct costs.

Once you have a completed your homework on the details of the bill and the cost, if any, to implement it, share a draft of the bill and your findings with coalition members. Ask for their comments and make sure you include any agreed upon changes in the draft.

Finding a Sponsor

Your sponsor is the one person who will walk the bill through every step in the legislative process.  If he or she is not committed to the bill and/or is unwilling to do battle with opponents when any controversy arises, your bill won't stand a chance.

Finding a sponsor and getting a commitment from him or her to work with you is one of the most important task you must undertake in your campaign to pass a law. Start with the chairman of the committee that your bill will probably be assigned to or look for a high ranking member of that committee. By having a sponsor who is in a leadership position on the committee or a committee member, your bill stands a greater chance of getting the attention it needs for hearings, mark-up and passage.

Make sure that your sponsor is well educated on the issue.  Share with him or her any and all data you have secured in documenting the need for a new law. This includes keeping the sponsor informed of potential opposition and their reasons for opposing the bill. Don't keep information -- even negative information -- from your sponsor in hopes that he won't find out. You will not only lose support on your bill, you may also lose vital support from this individual in the future.

If your sponsor has a staff, get to know them and develop a good working relationship. In some states, it is the staff person who will be your primary contact on legislation. He or she will be responsible for conducting research on the issue and making recommendations to the elected official on what position to take on the bill.  Because elected officials have hundreds and sometimes thousands of bills to review each session, they rely heavily on their staff people assigned to the issue to brief them on the pros and cons of the bills, the costs to implement, and the politics of the issue.

Keep the sponsor or the staff member informed of press questions, opposition from other elected officials, and new supporters. Make sure that your sponsor is not caught off guard by new revelations.

Education and Public Relations

Some issues are so important and so newsworthy, they warrant a press conference.  If the research you have conducted on your issue generates data which is quite remarkable, consider holding a press conference to announce the findings. You can also use that opportunity to let the public know that you will be seeking legislation to address the problem. Make sure your sponsor is included in the planning of and participation in the actual press briefing if you have already identified a sponsor.

If a press conference is not called for or too difficult for you to coordinate, you should still send out a press release on your findings or your investigation. Getting information out to the broadest audience possible will aid you in your campaign to influence elected officials' opinions on the issue. Newspaper articles and editorials can then be used in your lobbying material to demonstrate broad based support.

Your own supporters can be kept informed on the issue through legislative alerts or articles in your newsletter. Include a good representative story that personalizes the issue. If you are attempting to pass a law which would increase the penalties for animal abuse, focus on one specific case and demonstrate how the penalty didn't fit the crime. By personalizing an issue, your readers and members can more easily identify with the issue than if you simply gave them statistics.

Education materials on your issue should be tailored to fit all age groups. Prepare something for school children which can involve them in both a civics lesson as well as one on animal protection.  Have hand out material such as fact sheets through your shelter or office.  You want to encourage members and the general public to write on the issue.

If you don't already have a legislative team, create one and involve an organization, like the MSPCA, that has an existing network of advocates. A simple sign up form should be displayed at your shelter or office and included in your newsletter. Give members a variety of participation options to choose from and then build teams within your group.  Some may only commit to writing letters. Others may be willing to make phone calls.  Some may volunteer to attend meetings or hearings. Be creative in the ways they can help.

Finalizing a Bill

You'd like to pass a law that no one else in the United States has ever attempted to pass before. (Or, at least you think no one else has attempted to pass it.)
For this, you need to make sure you have the wording correct, the statute reference correct and that nothing in your proposed law is unconstitutional.

Get an attorney! If you don't have a board member, staff member or good friend who will donate his or her services to do the legal work for you, look to the legislative counsel of the elected body for assistance. Don't attempt to this on your own. You want to make sure that what you take to your sponsor is constitutionally correct. Give the attorney a rough draft of the bill and ask him or her to review it for correctness. If you are not sure of the exact wording you want in the bill, give the attorney the documentation of the problem and a suggested solution. Then, work closely to craft your ideas into bill format. You may also have access to the legislative counsel of your sponsor.

If there is similar legislation in other states or cities, write the bill based on those statutes and then work with legislative counsel or a private attorney to make sure you have referenced the proper area of law.  Show them the statutes from other states or towns as well as the documentation you have developed from your own area.

Submitting a Bill

Many jurisdictions have filing deadlines for new legislation. Some also limit the number of bills a legislator may file in a session. Know what the rules are in your legislative arena and prepare a schedule to help you meet deadlines and rules.

Giving your sponsor the time it takes to work the bill through the legislative process starts with filing the bill well in advance of the session's adjournment.

Meet with your sponsor with the drafted bill and set a date for filing.  If you agree to have it coincide with a press release or press conference, allow time to notify the media. Make sure your sponsor's office have plenty of copies of data or support material to send out with copies of the bill if contacted by the media or other elected representatives.


If you've never attended a hearing on a proposed new law or ordinance, you will probably be dazed by the whole experience.

Most legislative bodies deal with many bills in one hearing, sometimes as many as fifty at a time. This leaves little time to go in-depth on any one bill. If your bill is controversial, it may be separated out from others and a special hearing might be scheduled on it alone.

Pre-Hearing Preparation

Touch base with your sponsor to make sure he will be there. If your sponsor can't attend, make sure a co-sponsor can.  If you have no one on the committee as a sponsor or co-sponsor, it is important that at least one non-committee co-sponsor show up for the hearing.

Prepare suggested questions for committee members who are supporters of the bill. Although most legislative bodies limit the amount of time you have to testify for or against a bill, the questioning period, during which committee members may ask direct questions of those who have come to testify, is generally not limited. This is a great time for you to address some of the myths surrounding your bill which may not have been addressed in your oral presentation. You may also give them questions to ask of the bill's opponents.

Line up expert witnesses to testify on your bill. Veterinarians might talk about the type and extent of injuries they have treated on dogs who have jumped or been thrown from the back of pick-up trucks.  Animal control officers can speak about the number of unwanted litters picked up during kitten season. But, try to secure experts from your on area. A wise old legislator from Tennessee once asked, "Don't you have anyone here from our state? We were not elected by people from Arizona or New York."

At the Hearing

Let the chairperson of the committee and your sponsor know who you have brought in to testify and what in order you would like for them to speak. In some states, proponents of the bill go first, and opponents go last. In other states, proponents and opponents are alternated.

Keep your oral testimony brief. You can make your written testimony longer, and you can include back up documentation such as surveys, scientific papers, news articles, etc., to bolster your case. But, don't get carried away. Try to be concise.

During the questioning period, stick to the issue. Don't engage a hostile legislator in debate and don't argue points for which you don't have solid statistics. If you don't know the answer to a question, say so. Respond back to the questioner after the hearing once you have the correct information.

After the Hearing

Remember to write a short note to all those who supported you at the hearing. Also, send out any additional information you promised to committee members or media. If there is any new information that is helpful to your position that surfaces after the hearing, send that to committee members.

Call your sponsor after the hearing and ask if there is anything else he or she wants you to do. Are there any committee members who may be undecided? Would a personal visit help? What suggestions does he or she have on where to go from here?

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