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Despite digitized legislation process, glue sticks still vital

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Once all the committee meetings, bill readings, amendments, last-minute deals and floor votes are complete, the Legislature goes home.

But the lawmaking process is far from over. When the Capitol halls clear out, the process of turning bills into laws all comes down to ink, paper, scissors and glue.

Reporters often say a piece of legislation that passes both the House of Delegates and state Senate is "on its way to the governor's desk." In a sense, that's true. But the phrase overlooks the huge amount of work left for both chambers' clerks and Governor's Office staff.

"This is when the heavy lifting really begins," Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin spokeswoman Amy Shuler-Goodwin said last week. "We continue to burn the midnight oil long after the Legislature leaves.

"It's much more complicated than 'Yay! It passed.' "

The work begins in the House and Senate clerks' offices.

For a bill to pass, both chambers must approve identical versions of the legislation. If one body passes even a slightly amended version of a bill, the other body must agree to those changes or work out a compromise in a "conference committee," comprised of members from each house.

Unless the governor extends the session, lawmakers' jobs end immediately when the clock strikes midnight on the 60th day of the regular legislative session. House and Senate clerks still can make changes to the bills once the session ends, however.

The clerk's amendments cannot change the bills' original intent. They cannot change policy. But clerks are allowed to proofread the legislation and fix any typographical errors.

"Every now and again you'll get a clerical error. 'Or' is left out, or 'and,' " said assistant Senate clerk Lee Cassis.

House Clerk Greg Gray said one bill that recently landed on his desk accidentally substituted the word "employed" for "deployed." He fixed the mistake and had the bill reprinted.

"These are non-substantive issues that I can change, because it's clear it was a typographical error," he said.

With proofreading completed, the bills must then be "enrolled."

Clerks print up four copies of each passed bill: one for each chamber, the governor and the Secretary of State. Each copy must be signed by the speaker of the House, the Senate president, the House and Senate clerks and a member of each chamber's enrollment committee.

That can prove difficult.

The Legislature passed 216 pieces of legislation this year, which means the clerks and their staffs must keep track of 864 copies of those bills and have each one signed.

"It's tough once they get out of town, especially with our president being up north," Cassis said.

Senate President Jeff Kessler lives in Glen Dale, in West Virginia's Northern Panhandle.

"We have to make a couple trips out of town to get his signature," Cassis said.

Once bills are enrolled, their next stop is the Governor's Office.

The House and Senate clerks deliver all four copies of each bill to Tomblin, along with a scrapbook of sorts.

Following each session, the clerks cut and paste the titles of each passed bill into a blank hardback book. Bill titles describe what each piece of legislation is intended to do, along with the bills' sponsors and the sections of state code that will be altered.

Gray's office handles titles for bills that originated in the House. Senate Clerk Joe Minard's office cuts and pastes the bills born in the Senate.

There's no fancy way to do this. It comes down to a steady pair of scissors and a glue stick, just like the ones second-graders use for classroom art projects.

Cassis said he burned through five glue sticks this year, and started on a sixth.

Most bill titles fit neatly in the book's pages. Others, however, require a little maneuvering.

The title for Senate Bill 371, the governor's prison overcrowding legislation, is about three feet long while the title for Senate Bill 359, Tomblin's education reform bill, is nearly twice that length.

The blank book is only about 14 inches long.

In these instances, clerks borrow a technique from children's pop-up books. They fold the bill titles, accordion-style, before pasting the top section onto one of the logbook's pages.

The logbook accompanies each chamber's bills to the Governor's Office, where it is time-stamped and signed.

"It's clocked in with the date and time, and the signature of the person receiving on behalf of the governor," Gray said.

"We'll stamp them all in, then they're out of our hands," Cassis said.

It is now up to Tomblin to decide whether to sign the bills into law or veto them. Just as soon as his staff finishes proofreading each individual piece of legislation, looking for errors the clerks might have missed.

Mistakes can be deadly for bills. Tomblin last week vetoed Senate Bill 21, which would have required health care workers to wear identification badges at all times.

The governor torpedoed the bill not over politics or funding concerns, but because of a tiny little typo that had so far made it through the system unnoticed.

"The applicability of this section . . . is incorrect because of an incorrect cross-reference on page four, line one," Tomblin wrote in his veto message to Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. "This cross reference should refer to section 'two,' instead of section 'three.' "

When the governor is finished passing or vetoing bills, the logbook always returns to the House Clerk's office for safekeeping.

"That's the only record book that we have," Gray said.

Computers have changed many parts of the legislative process - lawmakers now do much of their reading on state-issued iPads, and the clerks' offices keep track of changes to bills through the Legislature's website - but maintaining these logbooks still is required by the joint rules of the Legislature.

It remains a decidedly low-tech process mostly because it still works.

Gray's office has legislative logbooks going back to the state's founding.

During a recent visit by the Daily Mail, Gray produced a book from 1953. The yellowed tome was formatted just like this year's version, with bill titles snipped and pasted onto lined pages. But instead of Tomblin's signature, this book bears the autographs of governors like Cecil Underwood and Wally Barron.

Soon, Gray will begin another of his old-fashioned but important duties: compiling hardbound copies of the House's journals.

The clerks' offices print journals throughout the legislative session, reflecting every action taken on the House or Senate floor.

But at the end of the session, legislative rules require each chamber to produce a bound version of these journals. The books usually are so lengthy they require multiple volumes, each one as thick as certain Harry Potter novels.

Most of the time, it's pretty dry reading. But on occasion, a fascinating nugget of West Virginia history will leap from the pages.

For instance: the House Journal for 1963 shows the House of Delegates passed a concurrent resolution to make former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill an honorary citizen of the state of West Virginia.

Churchill promptly responded with a letter.

"Will you please convey to the Legislature and the Governor of the State of West Virginia my gratitude for the honor that has been done me?" he wrote. "It is a source of the greatest pleasure to me that the State of West Virginia should pay me this outstanding compliment."

Other entries provide just enough details to get the imagination running wild.

"FIRE," an entry from Nov. 30, 1875 reads. "The Hall of the House of Delegates is on fire."

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

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