Saturday, August 2, 2008

Children's Mental Health Campaign: What is "engrossment"?

As I briefly mentioned on Friday, the Children's Mental Health Bill (SB 2804) survives despite the end of the legislative session through the mechanism of "engrossment".  Engrossment is  "the process of preparing a bill for Final Reading by incorporating all adopted amendments."  Apparently this dates back to the days of pretty parchment paper, when the bills had to be scribed before they can be finally approved.  So the Children's Mental Health Bill (SB 2804) wasn't passed, but it was reported out of the Ways and Means Committee with an amendment, and has been sent back to the Senate (which already passed it unanimously) to be sure they agree with the final amendments.  Once the Senate "engrosses" the bill, it comes back to the House for approval, then back to the Senate and then to the Governor.  Complex, no?

Really, it is a beautifully designed system, that allows the members of the Legislature to juggle the wide variety of issues that are competing for attention.  The Legislature had many major issues with which to deal before the end of the session;  fixing the health care reform, bond stuff, fixing mental health and many other things.  Too much to do. Several of the issues needed to be done with public debate.  ALL of the land bills required a full vote of the House (including something to do with Community Healthlink in our little town of Worcester) People who felt strongly needed to have their say on the floor;  that uses up floor time.  So how do you get through the process and still close at midnight?  You pass some things, you engross some things, you get some things out of committee, you literally alter time and you run the whole think through a complex whirling spree that is the end of the session.  I watched them debate; I watched them pass some things, and I watched them "engross" a whole bunch of bills, not knowing what it meant.  To a bill, "engrossment" means survival, a chance to pass in one of the "informal" sessions that will happen over the next few months.  Amazing process;  not at all the way they described it on "Schoolhouse Rock".  Apparently the Federal government doesn't believe in parchment, although I am certain that they have their own set of interesting and arcane rules.

Why is all of this a good thing?  All of these convolutions allow those interested in this legislation to ensure that a consensus is reached that incorporates the interests of all concerns. 
It clearly requires people who have a deep understanding of the process.  Fortunately for our bill, Speaker Dimasi and Representative Balser have that understanding and were able to shepard this bill past the midnight deadline.  And we still have a shot.

The Speaker closed the session by having everyone give themselves a round of applause.   They earned it, and I hope that they had a good party in the Berkshires (Governor Patrick hosted a party in the Berkshires).   Despite the end of the session, they still have some work to do.  We will keep you posted.

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