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How an idea becomes a bill is a journey in itself

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - There is only one place in West Virginia where a bill can become a law. That's the governor's desk.

Turning an idea into a bill, however, occurs just down the hall in the Legislative Services Division. And, rather than a swipe from the chief executive's pen, drafting bills requires a whole team of attorneys and proofreaders.

Legislative Services Director John Homburg oversees bill drafting.

Legislation arrives in his office in various stages of development. Lawmakers sometimes show up with laws other states have passed and ask Homburg's staff to tailor the bill to West Virginia code.

He said those are the most difficult to write.

Because other states' laws are different, their bills are written in different formats and the names of their government agencies often do not match those in West Virginia.

Sometimes, lawmakers come to the office with fully formed legislation drafted by lobbyists. Homburg and his staff still must go through the legislation, however, to make sure it is in the proper format, correctly aligns with West Virginia law and does not include any spelling, grammar or punctuation errors.

"We're kind of the clearinghouse, to make sure everything's in the proper form," he said.

Other times, bills arrive at Legislative Services as little more than a thought bouncing around in a lawmaker's head.

It's up to Homburg's staff of attorneys to turn those abstruse ideas into full-fledged pieces of legislation.

"I tell people, the more information you give us, the more we'll be able to give you what you want," Homburg said.

Bill drafters must figure out where the proposed law fits into West Virginia code, and which statutes should be changed to make the bill effective.

If a lawmaker's idea does not fit into any existing section of state code, drafters must pen an entirely new article for the law books.

While search engines allow drafters to search for keywords and specific sections of code, Homburg said it is important for the attorneys on his staff to have an intimate knowledge of state law.

"We all become a generalist as far as the law goes," he said. "Having a general knowledge is helpful. It saves you time, that's for sure."

Once the bill is drafted, its next stop is the Legislative Services' typing department, where the division's lone typist ensures bills are in the proper order and have been correctly formatted.

From typing, the bill heads to Homburg's all-female team of proofreaders.

Located in a side room off the Legislative Services Division's main office, the eight proofreaders sit at long tables lined with computers. They check each bill to make sure the language aligns with existing state law, and also watch out for grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes.

Frances Goad, the office's chief proofreader, has worked at the part-time job for 31 years. She said she returns session after session because she likes her co-workers and enjoys the proofreading.

With the proofreaders' job completed, the bill goes back to its original drafter for review. If they sign off on it, the bill makes its way to Homburg's desk for his stamp of approval. He then sends the bill to its sponsors in the Legislature. Then, the sponsors submit the completed bill to the House or Senate clerk's office.

Nearly 800 bills have already passed through Legislative Services this legislative session. Many of those bills were completed long before members of the 81st Legislature arrived in Charleston.

Homburg said the office usually begins work on bills in December trying to get as many bills as possible through the system before the Legislature convenes.

"They can hit the ground running," he said.

Homburg's staff more than doubles in size in the months leading to a legislative session.

The office employs five permanent attorneys, including Homburg. During the legislative off-season, they work as legal counsel for Capitol offices, giving legal opinions and performing research.

He brings on four additional attorneys during the run-up to each year's session, plus the office's eight-person proofreading staff.

The amount of time required to draft a bill depends on its complexity and the number of bills already going through the office.

Bills requested by the governor's office get special privileges, heading straight to the front of the line. Complicated pieces of legislation introduced by rank-and-file lawmakers sometimes take three days or longer to produce, however.

In the end, much of the work performed by Homburg's staff is in vain.

Despite all the hours of research and proofreading, the vast majority of bills produced by the office will not make it into the law books. Most will quietly die in committees, while others are subjected to a slower and more tortuous death on the chamber floors.

It doesn't bother Homburg. Years ago, a bill passed through his office that made all the staffers snicker. He said he can't remember the details of the legislation, other than it seemed strange.

"Daggone, it's law today," Homburg said. "You never know which one it's going to be.

"It's democracy in action; everybody gets their shot at putting their idea in."

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.


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