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Ask the Times: How much does a bill cost? 

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Q: I am not passing judgment on any particular legislation or legislator, but I am curious as to how much it costs for each bill that is introduced while the legislature is in session. This is all taxpayer money, and some bills that have been introduced seem to be doomed to failure, and all they accomplish is a bit (or a lot) of free publicity for the sponsoring individuals, even if they never make it out of committee. Can anyone put a price tag on these efforts?

— Phil Palludan

A: Sorry, Phil. We tried, but we couldn't get a simple answer to this question.

We started with Marty Garrity, the director of the Bureau of Legislative Research at the Capitol. Every bill begins its life as a draft composed by a BLR staff attorney at the request of a legislator or a state agency. Some of those drafts never see the light of day, while others are eventually filed and assigned a number (such as "Senate Bill 202"), at which point they are made public

Garrity said there are too many variables at play to actually come up with a price tag for what it costs BLR to hatch a bill.

"I think it's almost impossible, because each bill requires a different amount of time. I had one bill that took the entire session; I had others that took about three days," she said. Appropriations bills, the routine pieces of legislation that parcel out some $20 billion in state, federal and cash funds to all the hundreds of different components of government, usually take even less time than that. For more substantive bills, the length of the drafting process itself depends partly on whether staff attorneys have to start from scratch in formulating the legislation. "Sometimes it's just an idea — 'hey, we heard Nebraska is doing this' — and sometimes, there's a Word document [from the legislator]."

"It'll go through a legal review, as well as a grammar review. Then it goes back to the attorney, who'll review it again, and then to the member who requested it," she said. Often, a member will also request a fiscal impact study on the bill, meaning staff must research its projected effect on the state budget. If a bill is indeed filed, it then enters the legislative process — a discussion and vote in House and Senate committees and a discussion and vote in each full chamber — which might happen very rapidly or might drag on for hours or days. The bill may need to return to BLR to be amended once, twice or more. And if it's amended, that may mean more committee time and more votes.

There are clearly staff costs associated with all of the stages of this process, but because this is happening with hundreds of pieces of different legislation at once, it's not feasible to put a price tag on any single bill.

There are, at least, some hard numbers for the annual budgets of agencies associated with the legislature. BLR was appropriated $3.5 million for fiscal 2015, the House of Representatives was appropriated $3.6 million, and the Senate was appropriated $1.3 million. The Division of Legislative Audit, a separate agency, was appropriated $3.1 million. There are also costs to the Secretary of State's office in maintaining the Capitol grounds. More details on those budgets are available to the public at transparency.arkansas.gov.

What about bills that "seem to be doomed to failure" from the beginning, as our reader asked? Case in point: The bill by Rep. Dan Douglas (R-Bentonville) to regulate California wine sales in Arkansas in retaliation for that state's higher animal welfare standards, a stunt that even Douglas said was never intended to actually become law. After it unexpectedly passed the House, he pulled it down from consideration before it reached the Senate.

"We leave that up to the members of the General Assembly to determine," Garrity said, carefully. "We treat all bills as if they're going to pass. It's not our job to question the motive or intent of the members."

The really egregious cost associated with legislative grandstanding, though, occurs after the legislature passes a patently unconstitutional bill. Take the 12-week abortion ban approved in 2013, which flies in the face of Roe v. Wade. According to Holly Dickson, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, the state has already been ordered to pay $69,000 in trial fees and costs after losing a suit challenging the law in federal court last year, and that's not counting the lost time and effort expended by the Attorney General's office in mounting its quixotic defense.

More costs lie ahead: The state has appealed to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. In fact, in 2015, the General Assembly set aside up to $200,000 in anticipation of the additional legal fees associated with further defending the 12-week ban. Now that's some good fiscal conservatism.

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