Q: I have a great idea for a new California law. Our kids get nothing but junk food at their school cafeteria for lunch. They should be learning about – and eating – fresh, healthy food. I want to get a law passed that requires every elementary, middle and high school with a school lunch program to also have a school garden to supply students with fresh fruit and vegetables. How do I get this law passed?


A: Dear Paula,

Laws are created in one of two ways in California: through the legislature, or through an initiative.

Bills in the State Legislature

Most new laws (or changes in laws) start when a state senator or Assembly member drafts and proposes a bill. People in a certain age range may remember the Schoolhouse Rock cartoon “I’m Just a Bill,” describing this process for federal laws. It’s similar in California, but in real life, the process is complicated by many sub-steps and opportunities for delay. Bills go through a lengthy process of debate, amendment and approval, first in one House then the other, before being signed (or vetoed) by the Governor.

Call, write, or email your representative to suggest a bill. You can also contact the representative’s office to schedule an appointment with him or her. Contact the local or Sacramento office to set up a time to meet. Be prepared with information about the problem your bill would address, how current law deals with this problem, and how your suggestion would improve things.

You can contact any representative, but you are more likely to get a personal response from the Assembly member or senator who represents your own district. To find out who your representatives are, visit “Your Legislature” and enter your zip code.

Once a bill is introduced, there are many things you can do to help get it passed, from organizing letter-writing campaigns, writing letters to the editor, and offering to testify at committee hearings. Tips on these and other methods of lobbying for your bill can be found in “A Citizen’s Guide to Lobbying” and “How to Lobby the California State Legislature,” both put out by the state government.

You can trace the progress of any particular bill through the lengthy process of debate, amendment, and approval by visiting the official California legislative information site’s “Bill Information” page. You can even sign up for an email whenever something happens with your bill.

Passing a Law by Popular Vote: The Initiative Process

California is one of 24 states that use the initiative process. The initiative is the power of the people of California to propose statutes and amendments to the California Constitution (Cal. Const., art. II, Section 8(a)). The laws governing the initiative process are mostly at California Election Code, starting at section 9000.

Initiatives are placed on the ballot if the sponsors can collect enough signatures to qualify – 5% of the number of voters in the last gubernatorial election (currently 504,760 ) for statutes, and 8% (currently 807,615) for Constitutional amendments. If approved by a majority vote, an initiative becomes law the next day.

Getting an initiative on the ballot takes a long time – if you start now, you might be able to get one on the June 5, 2012 ballot. There are also very specific requirements for format and signature gathering. You can read about the process in the California Secretary of State’s “Initiative Guide.”

The first step is to write the text of the law. Next, the sponsors are required to submit it to the California Attorney General, who writes the official title and summary, and if necessary, submits it for fiscal analysis. The AG’s office has a good explanation of the process on its website. After that is complete, the sponsors have 150 days to circulate the petition and collect the necessary signatures. Both volunteers and paid signature-gatherers are allowed.

Once the signatures are gathered, the sponsors file the petition with the officials in each county, who count the signatures and report the results to the Secretary of State. If the initiative gathers enough signatures, it goes on the next statewide ballot.

For more information, visit the California Secretary of State’s website or contact the Secretary of State’s Initiative Coordinator at (916) 657-2166.

Do you have a question for the County Law Librarian? Just email sacpress@saclaw.org. If your question is selected your answer will appear in next Thursday’s column. Even if your question isn’t selected, though, I will still respond within two weeks.

Coral Henning, Director
@coralh & @saclawlibrarian