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Want to Kill a Bill Without Voting Against It? Study It

By Debi Brazzale, COLORADO NEWS AGENCY

High school civics teaches us there are two possible fates for a bill introduced in the legislature: pass or fail. In reality, there’s a third option–amending the bill into a study. And some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will tell you it can be a fate worse than death; it enacts empty verbiage in order to spare the egos of sponsors while giving cover to opponents who don’t want to go on record with a “no” vote. They all can embrace a study.

Sometimes, what some lawmakers call “death by study” also is used to defuse an overheated political issue over which the legislature is nearly deadlocked, as was the case on at least one high-profile standoff during the 2010 session–a high-country clash between commercial rafters and landowners. Even then, a study isn’t always enough to save the measure.

Former GOP Senate Majority Leader Mark Hillman, of Burlington, recalling his time in the legislature, says that studies are generally the result of an inability to get a bill passed. The studies, said Hillman, provide a path to allow an issue addressed in a bill to remain viable to some degree while keeping the status quo in the law books.

“A study effectively neuters a bill and doesn’t really serve a useful purpose. Studies are usually used to get bills passed that legislators can’t otherwise get passed,” said Hillman.

Another former Senate lawmaker and Democratic caucus chair, Ron Tupa, of Boulder, largely agrees.

“In general, legislation starting out as controversial and ending up being a study is typically a face-saving measure for bills that would otherwise simply be killed,” said Tupa. “Usually, the study provides no new information but keeps the issue alive in legislators’ minds until the next legislative session, when it’s likely to be re-introduced. It’s a time-worn strategy.”

Tupa also said he believes that studies actually are sometimes necessary for issues that at first glance may seem like good policy but merit a deeper look before becoming statute.

“On those rare occasions when the topic is complicated or requires analysis outside of the sound bite variety … the study can actually produce new and useful information to guide legislators’ votes in subsequent sessions,” said Tupa.

Hillman concedes some studies are warranted, but it’s rare.

“There are times when a bill, presented as a study when it is introduced, can produce useful information,” he said. “But more often than not it is simply a way to get a bill passed.”

In the case of House Bill 1188, dubbed the “right to float” bill for commercial rafters, asking for a study effectively killed the bill. The Senate amended the measure mandating a study be done before tinkering with the statutes regarding boaters and property owners along Colorado’s waterways. However, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kathleen Curry, of Gunnison, preferred an up or down vote on the merits of the bill.

“If we’re going to study a policy issue and give it the rubber stamp of approval from the General Assembly, then we need to be thoughtful about how we structure it,” said Curry. “It is incumbent upon us as legislators to make sure that process is balanced and fair. Boaters are frustrated because there was never an up or down vote on the policy issue and nothing has been resolved going into the rafting season.”

Democratic House Speaker Terrance Carroll, of Denver, says he understands why the studies are proposed, but Carroll says his personal preference is to not pass a law mandating a study. He said he’d rather see his own bills fail than go the route of a study.

“We don’t really need a bill to have a study, but sometimes folks want to show that they got something done,” Carroll said.

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