You may remember the Schoolhouse Rock song, “I’m Just A Bill’ that even gave kids some insight into the legislative processes of the United States. New York State and New York City also have their own legislative processes that affect the lives of every New Yorker on a local and sometimes more personal level, depending on the issues at hand. It’s important to understand how New York City laws come to be, as they affect not only you but also the lives of New Yorkers who may not have as loud of a voice in government, such as undocumented immigrants or kids.
The three branches of government
Much like the U.S. government, New York City also has three branches of government:
- Executive: This branch of government is headed by the mayor, currently Mayor Eric Adams.
- Judicial: This branch is made up of city and state courts such as the criminal and civil courts.
- Legislative: New York City’s Legislative branch comprises the council members, each elected from a district. (You may remember districts were recently redrawn, find out who your city council member is here.) Council members are elected every two years. The 2023 New York City City Council election will be held on Nov. 7, 2023, and the primary will be held on June 27, 2023. Stay tuned for our coverage on city council elections.
New York City’s Legislative branch
Bills are turned into laws via the city’s legislative branch, composed of 51 city council members. Each of these council members are assigned to a specific “committee.” The council has 38 committees that oversee different aspects of NYC, for example, there are committees on human services, transportation, infrastructure, mental health and even small businesses. Find out more about committees here.
Each committee is chaired by a council member and has five or more members who review the impact services, local laws and policies will have on New Yorkers across the five boroughs. These committees work in conjunction with the legislative division, which includes a team of staff attorneys and analysts who provide legal research and guidance.
Introducing a bill
Now that you know the key players, it’s time to understand some of the key steps to introducing legislation.
- The very first step is for a council member to propose legislation.
- The legislative division checks to ensure the legislation has not already been proposed and then assigns someone from their division to work with the council member to draft the bill.
- The council member proposing the legislation is generally the primary sponsor whose name will be first on the bill, you will see this whenever you look at any bills on legistar. It’s important to note that more than one member can jointly introduce a bill and the mayor can also put forth legislation working with the NYC council speaker (additional details here).
- Once a draft of the legislation is ready, the bill will need to be introduced to the body at the “Stated Meeting” by the council member who is the primary sponsor and referred to a committee.
At any point, other council members can choose to sign on to a bill whether at the request of the primary sponsor or because they deem it important to support. A member not signed on to a bill does not mean that they will not support the bill or vote against it. There may be a myriad of reasons why a member is not signed on to another member’s bill.
Making your voice heard
After a committee receives the bill, the council will hold public hearings to get feedback from New Yorkers or other government officials whose lives can be affected by the bill. This is an essential step because it allows for the voices of New Yorkers to be heard. During this step, New Yorkers often rally outside city hall or testify before the council at the hearings. Many nonprofit organizations and advocates for or against the bill will attend these hearings. After public hearings take place, the bill may need amendments. A list of the city’s upcoming hearings can be found here.
Time for a vote
After the public hearing, the assigned committee has to approve and vote on the bill. If the bill passes by the majority, it will then go for a vote by the full council body, who will also talk about and vote on whether they support it. If the majority of the council votes in favor of the bill, it passes on to the next step.
The mayor’s decision
After the council votes on the bill, it lands in the hands of the mayor. The mayor has 30 days to do one of three things:
- sign the bill into law
- veto the bill
- do nothing
If the mayor does not do anything within those 30 days, or if he signs it, the bill becomes a law. If the mayor vetoes the bill, it gets sent back to the council, which can override this decision. If two-thirds of the council vote in favor, the bill becomes law.
An important factor to note, a bill may not be introduced and/or voted on right away, when and what bills are introduced will depend on several components including the urgency of the legislation and council priorities. For example, during the height of the pandemic, the council moved expeditiously to cap delivery fees by third-party apps.
If a person, a small business or organization has an idea for a bill or a law, they can contact their local council member or the chair of the committee the legislation could fall under. If you want to know what that process is like, refer to the city’s Bill Drafting Manual, which is available to the public.