Reading: How to Read a Bill


The Texas Constitution provides that “[n]o law shall be passed, except by bill.” As a result, the bill is the exclusive means by which the legislature may enact, amend, or repeal a statute. Enacted bills can be accessed via the Texas Legislative Information System, on Capweb, and Texas Legislature Online. Bills that have been filed but have not made it through the entire legislative process also can be accessed via TLIS or TLO. Bills are distributed in either electronic format or hard copy, or both, to members of the legislature at certain stages of the legislative process.

How Bills Are Organized

Parts of a Bill

Each bill is composed of three basic parts: introductory language, substantive provisions, and procedural provisions.

Introductory language. The standard features of a bill include the heading, the caption, and the enacting clause, which are referred to collectively as introductory language.

Here is an example of a bill’s introductory language:

The first line at the top of the first page of every bill is the heading, sometimes referred to as the “byline.” The heading indicates the chamber in which the bill was introduced, the bill number, and the author’s name. Below the heading are the caption and the enacting clause, which are both required by the Texas Constitution to be included in every bill. The caption is meant to give legislators and other persons a convenient way to determine the subject of the bill and usually includes the phrase “relating to.” The enacting clause is in all caps, is indented, and ends with a colon. For purposes of understanding the bill, the caption is the most important part of the introductory language because it serves as an immediate explanation of the bill’s subject matter.

Substantive provisions. Following the introductory language are the substantive provisions of the bill. A bill may include a short title, a statement of policy or purpose, definitions, principal operative provisions, and enforcement provisions. We’ll revisit some of these provisions within the context of learning to read a bill, but some provisions merit further explanation here.

  • Short title. A short title is neither required nor appropriate for most bills, but sometimes is included in a bill to provide a convenient way of citing a major, cohesive body of law that deals comprehensively with a subject.

Here’s an example from the Agriculture Code:

  • Statement of policy or purpose. A statement of policy or purpose is neither required nor appropriate for most bills, but may sometimes be included when a substantial body of new law is introduced or when the operative provisions of a short bill do not clearly indicate what the bill is intended to accomplish.

Here’s an example from the Health and Safety Code:

  • Definitions. A bill may include an entire section dedicated to definitions of terms that apply to a code, a title, a chapter, or a subchapter, or it may define terms in a statutory subsection that apply only to that statutory section.
  • Principal operative provisions. There are two categories of principal operative provisions. Administrative provisions relate to the creation, organization, powers, and procedures of the governmental units that enforce the law. Substantive provisions grant or impose on a class of persons rights, duties, powers, and privileges and may govern conduct by establishing either a mandate or a prohibition.
  • Enforcement provisions. An enforcement provision prescribes a punishment for violating a mandate or a prohibition. Such a provision generally establishes a criminal penalty, a civil penalty, an administrative penalty, injunctive relief, or civil liability as a consequence of violating the mandate or prohibition.

Bills can amend the codes and statutes by adding new language or changing existing language. Provisions that directly amend an existing statute must follow two format conventions. First, the language describing the statute being amended, also called the recital, must refer to the official citation of that statute.

Second, the rules of the senate and house of representatives require new language to be underlined and deleted language to be stricken through and bracketed so the reader can compare the current version of the law with the proposed version. The use of brackets is similar to the use of quotations. If there is an opening bracket, there must be a closing bracket. If multiple paragraphs are bracketed, there should be an opening bracket at each indentation, but not at the end or beginning of each line.

Bills also can amend the law by repealing existing provisions. Repealers work by citing the portion of law to be repealed and may appear as an entire bill section or as a subsection within a bill section. Be cautious as these provisions can be overlooked when reading a bill.

Procedural provisions. There are three types of procedural provisions: severability provisions, saving and other transition provisions, and effective date provisions. Some are of temporary significance, and they are not incorporated into the codes or revised statutes, but appear only in the session laws.

There are two types of severability provisions: severability clauses and nonseverability clauses. They have been used in bills to resolve the question of whether, when part of a statute is held to be invalid, the remainder of the statute is invalid. There is no practical need for severability clauses since Sections 311.032 and 312.013, Government Code, provide that all statutes are severable unless specifi cally declared otherwise. However, severability clauses still occasionally appear in bills.

Nonseverability clauses are used to make it clear that parts of a statute are meant to be treated together and rise and fall together under a constitutionality challenge. There are general nonseverability clauses, which declare that none of the provisions of an act are severable, and special nonseverability clauses, which declare that specific provisions are not severable.

A saving provision “saves” from the application of a law certain conduct or legal relationships that occurred before or existed on the effective date of the law. The most common saving provision applies to criminal or civil offenses:

A transition provision provides for the orderly implementation of legislation to avoid the confusion that can result from an abrupt change in the law. A common type of transition provision provides instruction for the transfer of powers and duties from one agency to another; another common type directs an agency to adopt rules or procedures required by a general substantive provision. Both can be found in the following example:

The Texas Constitution provides that a law may not take effect “until l ninety days after the adjournment of the session at which it was enacted” unless the legislature provides for an earlier effective date by a vote of two-thirds of the membership. There are six standard types of effective date provisions: immediate effect, a specific effective date before the 91st day, a specific effective date after the 91st day, an effective date contingent on an event or expiration of a period of time, an effective date contingent on passage of another bill or constitutional amendment, and an effective date contingent on an appropriation. In addition, a bill may have no effective date provision; in that case, it is effective on the 91st day after adjournment. Parts of a single bill may take effect on different dates.

A bill also occasionally has an “emergency clause,” which permits the legislature by extraordinary vote to suspend the constitutional rule requiring a bill to be read on three several days. The need to include an emergency clause in a bill was eliminated by constitutional amendment in 1999, so it may be ignored if it appears.

How to Read a Bill

Scanning the substantive provisions of a bill for certain features can help you learn valuable information quickly, in much the same way that reading the caption informs you about a bill’s general subject matter.

  • Check to see if the bill is adding new language, amending existing language, or both, by looking for underlined or stricken and bracketed language. If you are reading the session laws, new language is indicated by italics rather than underlining.
  • Without even reading for comprehension, simply noticing the amount and placement of underlining or italics and bracketing will give you an idea of the bill’s complexity. If the bill intersperses new language, such as individual words or qualifying phrases, throughout an amendable unit, the bill may be more difficult to understand than a bill that simply adds an entire new section or subchapter. This does not necessarily mean that the subject matter or effect of the bill is more complicated; what the bill is doing, however, may be less apparent.
  • Look for definitions. This can help determine the scope of a bill and provide clues about its focus. What agencies or entities are involved? Is the bill directed at a particular group?
  • Scan the recital for each bill section. Is the bill adding or amending just one section or article of the statutes? Is it adding or amending a subsection? Is it adding an entire subchapter or chapter? Is it making a series of similar changes to sections in different codes or different chapters of one code?
  • Look for conforming changes. Many times a bill makes a single substantive change to the law that necessitates related changes to be made in other sections of law. These changes are known as conforming changes. Identify such changes and move on; don’t spend time trying to understand a change if it is not substantively changing the statute. These changes are often easy to spot because they involve multiple insertions or deletions of the same words or phrases.
  • Check for repealers. What provisions does the bill repeal? How many repealers are there? Is the bill replacing one chapter or subchapter with another?
  • Refer to the surrounding statutes to put the bill or bill section in context. The following is a description of a bill section without reference to the statutes:

A health care provider forfeits its claim for reimbursement if the payment claim is filed later than the 95th day following the date on which the health care services were provided.

The following is a description of the same bill after referring to the statutes:

A workers’ compensation health care provider forfeits its claim for reimbursement for health care services provided to an injured employee if the payment claim is filed later than the 95th day following the date on which the care services were provided.

In many cases you will recognize much of what the bill is doing after following these steps. As examples, let’s review three bills. Our fi rst example is House Bill 3378, 77th Legislature, Regular Session, 2001.

House Bill 3378 is fairly simple to assess by employing the scanning techniques. The caption establishes that the bill relates to the composition of the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation. The amended statute is a list of faciliƟ es that are included in the department. The underlining and bracketing should immediately indicate that facilities are being removed from the list.

In essence, House Bill 3378 amends the Health and Safety Code to remove the Amarillo State Center, the Beaumont State Center, and the Laredo State Center from the list of facilities included in the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation.

Our next example is House Bill 2724 from the 80th Legislature.

You can learn what the bill is about just from scanning the caption and the section heading to Section 105.052, Alcoholic Beverage Code. The caption tells you that the bill will affect the hours for the wholesale delivery or sale of beer in certain counties. You may infer from this that the bill will either extend or reduce the hours during which wholesale delivery or sale of beer can occur. Note the use of the word “certain” in the caption and the section heading. This is a keyword alerting you to the fact that the bill will not affect all counties, and those affected will be defined or described in the bill.

Now note that the added statutory language begins with “[i]n addition to the hours . . . .” Clearly the bill is adding to the hours during which wholesale delivery or sale of beer can occur. So now you have two items to look for in the body of the bill when you read for comprehension: the counties to which the bill applies and the new hours during which delivery or sale can occur.

Also note that the new hours are in addition to the hours specifi ed in Section 105.05(b), Alcoholic Beverage Code. When you read for comprehension, you should read that section to obtain even more context for the changes made by the bill.

In summary, House Bill 2724 amends the Alcoholic Beverage Code to authorize the holder of a general, local, or branch distributor’s license whose premises is located in a county with a population of at least 1.8 million or in a county adjacent to such a county to sell or deliver beer beginning at 4 a.m. on any day except Sunday. This is in addition to any other period during which the sale or delivery of beer is authorized.

Now let’s review a slightly more difficult bill, Senate Bill 1613 from the 80th Legislature.

Two aspects of Senate Bill 1613 should stand out immediately. First, the caption explains that the bill relates to the payment of damages awarded against certain members of local governments. Notice that the bill achieves its purpose by amending the definitions section of Chapter 102, Civil Practice and Remedies Code. To fully understand Senate Bill 1613, you need to read the surrounding statutes. What are the damages to which the bill refers? What is the subject matter of Chapter 102? You should look up that chapter and, at the very least, read through the subchapter and section headings to understand the context of the bill.

Second, note that the bill is not actually making a change in the law. The statement of intent in SECTION 2 makes that clear. This is a rare example. The bill’s single purpose is to clarify the law. Senate Bill 1613 clarifies that the authority of a local government to pay actual damages awarded against one of its employees and to provide legal counsel in a suit for such damages may be exercised by a soil and water conservation district on behalf of a member of the district’s governing board.

The examples we’ve used provide a good starting point for learning how to read and understand a bill, but this publication is not intended to provide an answer to every question you may have or cover every scenario you may encounter as a reader. For a more comprehensive guide to understanding and analyzing the codes and legislative documents, you may refer to the Texas Legislative Council Drafting Manual, which is available in hard copy from the council by calling (512) 463-1144 or online at