What is legislative intent?

Simply put, legislative intent is any documentation produced prior to passage of a bill that would illuminate the intentions of the legislature at the time the law was created.
If you know anything about legislative history in New York, you would probably say it’s in the Governor’s Bill Jacket because for many years, researchers relied largely on materials found in the Governor’s Bill Jacket, a file containing whatever materials were sent to the Governor in regard to a bill. However, much of that material tends to be generated after passage of the bill, and is usually letters written to the Governor urging him to either sign or veto it.
Prior to copy machines becoming commonplace, there was little one could do but go to Albany to view original copies of the Bill Jackets. In 1946, New York Legislative Service, Inc. began publishing the New York State Legislative Annual; a compilation of the sponsor’s memoranda for new Chapter Laws passed every year. For decades it was the only readily available source of legislative intent. (Nearly complete sets can still be purchased from the Lawbook Exchange)
In the late 1970’s, New York Legislative Service, Inc. purchased the Bill Jacket collection on microfiche and film. Staff members soon realized from reading through them that reports and hearings mentioned in the Bill Jacket materials were almost never included. Further research showed that there were other materials that were never mentioned in the Bill Jackets. This was the beginning of a build-up of our specialized library of these materials. In recent years, the advent of on-line card-catalogs and the Internet has made finding even more material possible.
Governor’s Bill Jackets are available for most of 1905, then skip to 1921 and continue to the present. For years other than that, we can try to create a legislative history exclusive of a Governor’s Bill Jacket.
A typical Governor’s Bill Jacket may contain any or all of the following:
▪ The Senate and/or Assembly sponsor’s memoranda
▪ The Governor’s Approval memoranda (if one was issued)
▪ The Governor’s Program Bill memo (if the bill is part of his legislative program)
▪ Bar association memos
▪ Letters from State departments (e.g. the Insurance Dept.)
▪ Letters /memos from law firms
▪ Letters from organized groups such as Unions, churches, trade organizations
▪ Letters from private citizens
▪ Newspaper articles (rather rare)
It is not unheard of for the Governor’s own memo or the sponsor’s memo to be inadvertently left out of the Bill Jacket. If they are missing, do not assume that they do not exist.
People often assume that the Governor’s Bill Jacket is the complete and only history available, but that is not true. There are other sources of history that can be even more enlightening. The real problem is that no one was ever specifically charged with being the historian for legislative intent, so there are documents spread all over the place, but not referenced in relation to the associated sections of the Statutes. New York Legislative Service stepped into the breach and started providing expert services to gather as much relevant material as we could find as a research-on-demand service. 

Here is the basic procedure that we follow at NYLS:

First, we look in the New York State Legislative Annuals (published 1946 to present). They contain one or more memos for a Chapter and may have footnotes with more information.
Reading the Bill Jacket may turn up references to a related report produced by a private or government agency, committee or commission. The reports of the Law Revision Commission are especially relevant. Excellent reports are sometimes produced by one of the bar associations. Other reports may go unmentioned and reside in the State Archives or State Library. An example of this is the reports of the Joint Legislative Committee to Study Revision of Corporation Law (1960). The reports, which are thousands of legal-size pages long, contain detailed analysis section by section, yet they are never mentioned in the legislative history. Even if they were mentioned, it requires a knowledgeable person to extract relevant pages, since there is no index, nor section ordering to the pages! Most of the above reports are rarely inserted in the Governor’s Bill Jacket because of their length.
Floor debate transcripts from the Senate and Assembly. Transcripts are available for the Senate from 1960 forward, and for the Assembly, 1974 forward.
Legislative hearings and testimony. In recent years, New York Legislative Service, Inc. has obtained hearing transcripts for major legislation upon their release, knowing that in the future they may be impossible to find.
Press releases. The Governor and legislators both issue press releases. While the Governor used to issue Approval Memoranda upon signing important legislation, in recent years it has become more common for him to issue a press release instead.
News clippings. If they are not clipped around the time of passage and filed, this becomes an almost impossible job. We scan the major state newspapers, including the New York Times, Newsday, The Albany Times-Union, Capital 9 News, The Legislative Gazette, Buffalo News, the New York Post, the Daily News, and the Sun.
As briefly described, you can see that establishing legislative intent is a fluid process, and imprecise. It is our contention that it is better to be as completely prepared as possible with all materials! Having the specialists at New York Legislative Service perform the research and document retrieval is actually the quickest, most cost effective way to obtain legislative intent.
A note about legislative histories for New York Constitutional amendments:
The State does not compile histories for amendments to the Constitution, although the State Library has many related documents. New York Legislative Service, Inc. is the only source for such histories, as their expert staff performs the compilation of all relevant documents.
A note about Budget Bill legislative histories:
While budget bills are generally huge- perhaps 750 pages, their Bill Jackets are quite small. However, we usually collect 2 boxes of material per year on the budget. To copy all of this for a client would be expensive and mostly useless. Therefore, we will sort through the material and look for matter related to the section of the bill which concerns you.
A note about Governor’s Bill Jackets for recodifications of entire statutes: People often request the Bill Jacket for the recodifications of the 1939 Insurance Law (Chapter 882) or the 1961 Business Corporation Law (Chapter 855). Considering their importance, the Governor’s Bill Jackets contain very few pages, and all of it is general in nature. Substantial documentation does exist, but none of it is included in the Bill Jacket. To obtain all of the thousands of pages in the predecessor reports and draft copies would be very expensive (and frankly, a waste of money) if you are only concerned with one section of the statute. New York Legislative service sifts through all the material and creates it’s own supplements for each section of the statute so that you get only pertinent pages.
For a more extensive analysis of legislative intent, including the most rare and arcane sources, read Legislative Intent in New York State: Materials, Cases and Annotated Bibliography (Second Edition) by Robert Allan Carter, Senior Librarian, retired, New York State Library. 38 pages.  Also, How to Read a Statute in New York: A Response to Judge Kaye and Some More, Eric Lane, Hofstra Law Review, Volume 28, #1, Fall, 1999. A fascinating 40 pages!
© New York Legislative Service, Inc.