Before you begin the legislative history research process in search of legislative intent, consider these three shortcuts:
A positive answer to any of these questions may eliminate or reduce the need to embark on history research.
Many laws governing new topics contain sections stating the Legislature's findings regarding the situation or condition that lead to enactment.
Here are several examples:
Gang-Related Activity, RCW 59.18.500
Gang-related activity—Legislative findings, declarations, and intent.
The legislature finds and declares that the ability to feel safe and secure in one's own home and in one's own community is of primary importance. The legislature recognizes that certain gang-related activity can affect the safety of a considerable number of people in the rental premises and dwelling units. Therefore, such activity, although it may be occurring within an individual's home or the surrounding areas of an individual's home, becomes the community's concern.
The legislature intends that the remedy provided in RCW 59.18.510 be used solely to protect the health and safety of the community. The remedy is not a means for private citizens to bring malicious or unfounded actions against fellow tenants or residential neighbors for personal reasons. In determining whether the tenant's activity is the type prohibited under RCW 59.18.130(9), the court should consider the totality of the circumstances, including factors such as whether there have been numerous complaints to the landlord, damage to property, police or incident reports, reports of disturbance, and arrests. An absence of any or all of these factors does not necessarily mean gang activity is not occurring. In determining whether the tenant is engaging in gang-related activity, the court should consider the purpose and intent of RCW 59.18.510. The legislature intends to give people in the community a tool that will help them restore the health and vibrance of their community.
Shoreline Management Act of 1971, RCW 90.58.020, excerpt
Legislative findings—State policy enunciated—Use preference.
The legislature finds that the shorelines of the state are among the most valuable and fragile of its natural resources and that there is great concern throughout the state relating to their utilization, protection, restoration, and preservation. In addition it finds that ever increasing pressures of additional uses are being placed on the shorelines necessitating increased coordination in the management and development of the shorelines of the state. The legislature further finds that much of the shorelines of the state and the uplands adjacent thereto are in private ownership; that unrestricted construction on the privately owned or publicly owned shorelines of the state is not in the best public interest; and therefore, coordinated planning is necessary in order to protect the public interest associated with the shorelines of the state while, at the same time, recognizing and protecting private property rights consistent with the public interest. There is, therefore, a clear and urgent demand for a planned, rational, and concerted effort, jointly performed by federal, state, and local governments, to prevent the inherent harm in an uncoordinated and piecemeal development of the state's shorelines.
It is the policy of the state to provide for the management of the shorelines of the state by planning for and fostering all reasonable and appropriate uses. This policy is designed to insure the development of these shorelines in a manner which, while allowing for limited reduction of rights of the public in the navigable waters, will promote and enhance the public interest. This policy contemplates protecting against adverse effects to the public health, the land and its vegetation and wildlife, and the waters of the state and their aquatic life, while protecting generally public rights of navigation and corollary rights incidental thereto.
Tax Deferrals for Investment Projects in Rural Counties, RCW 82.60.010:
The legislature finds that there are several areas in the state that are characterized by very high levels of unemployment and poverty. The legislature further finds that economic stagnation is the primary cause of this high unemployment rate and poverty; that new state policies are necessary in order to promote economic stimulation and new employment opportunities in these distressed areas; and that policies providing incentives for economic growth in these distressed areas are essential. For these reasons, the legislature reestablishes a tax deferral program to be effective solely in distressed counties. The legislature declares that this limited program serves the vital public purpose of creating employment opportunities and reducing poverty in the distressed counties of the state.
If your goal is to determine why the Legislature enacted a law, check the first or second section of the law. The legislative findings--if available--may be all you need.
Legislative intent questions (and answers!) sometime surface in appellate court opinions.
Consider State v. Evans, 298 P.3d 724, 177 Wash.2d 186 (2013). The defendant was charged with identity theft after stealing a check from his employer, forging a signature, and cashing the check for $500. Evans challenged the conviction, contending "that RCW 9.35.020 (the identity theft statute) criminalizes theft of a natural person's identity but does not criminalize theft of a corporate identity—or in the alternative, that the statute is unconstitutionally vague."
Legislative history sources are described in paragraphs 18-20, including:
The information about these recordings also includes the number of minutes and seconds into the recording where the pertinent discussion is found. [S. Floor Debate (Mar. 13, 2001, 4:00 p.m.), at 1 hr., 50 min., 42 sec.]
The Court concluded:
Given the testimony and remarks before the legislature, the types of harms the legislature was seeking to prevent, the context of the prior version of the statute protecting corporations as victims, and the apparent motivation underlying the 2001 amendments, the legislative history clearly establishes that the "living or dead" provision was intended only to ensure a broad scope to the identity theft statute, not to exclude corporations as potential victims. Thus, "living or dead" must be interpreted to describe corporations as well as natural persons, both of which are classes of potential victims of identity theft under RCW 9.35.020.
So if your task is to determine whether businesses are covered by the Washington identity theft law, this court cases identifies and examines the most relevant parts of the original bill's legislative history.
Other appellate court cases analyze legislative intent of other statutes. See the Gallagher guide on Washington State Court Opinions & Related Sources for links to free and commercial online sources of court opinions.
Sources that identify and bring together legislative history documents and media on a particular law are rare. Only a handful are currently available.