Rich Olsen, the director of the team that helps lawmakers draft bills, in his office at the West Virginia Capitol in 2020. Photo by Ian Karbal

This is an excerpt from “Power and Possums,” a limited-run newsletter course about where power lies in the Legislature. Sign up here to get the whole email series delivered for free to your inbox. 

Every year in the months leading up to the legislative session, lawmakers will be inspired, pressured or incentivized to consider ideas from any number of sources.

They hear from constituents who visit, call and email about issues that are important to them. They sit on interim committees that meet when the Legislature is not in session and will investigate specific topics. They hear from lobbyists hired by companies, trade groups or advocacy organizations who are pushing their clients’ priorities. They read model legislation from national think tanks, or draw inspiration from other states. Even news stories can influence lawmakers by drawing their attention to an issue they might not have considered a priority. And every year brings unanticipated obstacles and revelations that may require changes or updates to existing state laws.

Of course, there are unlimited ideas that lawmakers don’t consider every year, too, and nothing makes it past this stage unless one of the 134 West Virginia legislators will put their name on it. But even of the bills that are introduced, only a small percentage become law. In the 2022 regular session, of the 2,216 bills lawmakers introduced, only 239 made it all the way through the process and became law. That’s just over 10%!

Wherever the journey starts, at some point it ends up in the basement of the West Virginia Capitol building. That’s where a team of proofreaders and typists will examine a bill’s language in the windowless offices, tucked away just down the hall from the cafeteria.

If you’ve ever read the whole text of a bill, you may be able to appreciate the precision of its language and just how complicated it can be to transform an idea into text that will modify ancient state code. Unfortunately, you may also appreciate the amount of legalese necessary to do so, and the daunting length of certain bills that really just, for example, amend a tax code.

There’s no way any group of 134 lawmakers — especially in a part-time, citizen legislature — could all have the know-how to take a policy idea and turn it into a silver bullet amendment to make state law do exactly what they want it to, and nothing else.

That’s where Rich Olsen and his staff in the Legislative Services Division come in. 

“As one member is fond of saying, ‘You can give us an idea on a napkin and we’ll turn it into a bill,’” Olsen said. 

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Nearly every one of the thousands of bills that get introduced in a session, no matter who it’s from or what it accomplishes, goes through Olsen and his staff of attorneys, proofreaders and typists.

Typically, that process goes like this: A lawmaker will approach Olsen or one of the attorneys working for him, and lay out what they want a bill to do. Then a member of the bill-drafting staff will go through state law, find exactly what piece they should modify to accomplish the lawmaker’s goal, and lay out the required changes in a way that comports with both the state and federal constitutions. Then Olsen and the lawmaker will both sign off on it, which sometimes requires a few rounds of back and forth until all parties are happy.

Then there’s a separate office of proofreaders who will make sure that the bill’s language does exactly what’s intended, and is laid out according to the chambers’ standards (which are, themselves, covered in this 144-page manual).

As Aaron Allred, who oversees the bill-drafting office, put it, “You can draft great legislation, but if the court doesn’t read it the way you mean it, then it’s not going to accomplish the policy goal of the Legislature.”

Sometimes, the person most responsible for inspiring a bill may even be brought into the drafting process. Allred estimates that for about 5% of the bills his office writes, lawmakers request his staff deal directly with the lobbyists or constituents who pushed for it to be introduced.

If an idea is brought to them fully fleshed out, most of their work may be in the writing of the bill, which can be simple or complex depending on how many parts of state law it’s amending, and how drastically.

And if an idea is more like a scratch on a napkin, it can take attorneys days to find the right pieces of statute to alter.

Fortunately, as Olsen put it, “A lot of the things that people come to me with, they’re not reinventing the wheel. You get some novel ideas, but at the same time, a lot of this stuff — we have 50 states, and we’ll look to other states for ideas, or bases, for what a bill might be.”

While most bills are penned by — or, at least credited to — legislators, there is one notable exception. Executive branch bills come from the governor’s office, but are traditionally introduced and co-sponsored by the House speaker and Senate president in their respective chambers, along with the minority leader in each chamber.

Employees of state agencies can also write bills if they want to alter a piece of state statute that directly impacts their work or something in their purview. For those bills, a legislator, or group of legislators, would need to agree to sponsor it.

And sometimes bills originate in committees. Those bills will be written by that committee’s staff, and not by someone in Olsen and Allred’s office. They’ll be sponsored by all members of the committee, unless a member requests to be removed as a sponsor before it’s introduced.And of course there’s another group of players in the West Virginia statehouse who not only influence bills, but sometimes write them: lobbyists. You can learn more about the role lobbyists play in the West Virginia Legislature by signing up for the full Power and Possums newsletter course here.

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.