Legislative Process Committee Sputters Down the Stretch

Written by Bob Bernick on . Posted in Today At Utah Policy

They started out with some big ideas; changes that could really reform how the Utah Legislature operates and new laws are fostered on our citizens.

But the newly-formed Legislative Process Committee is ending with a whimper, not a bang.

 

A few of the big ideas some legislators wanted the committee to address over the 2013 interim have gone by the wayside.

Such as:

-- Letting any of the 104 part-time senators and representatives abstain from voting and/or declare a conflict of interest on the bill or budget item and step aside during critical votes.

-- Restricting the number of bills any one legislator could introduce in a 45-day general session.

-- Doing away with “protected” – or secret – bills from being prepared by the legislative attorneys. All bills would be public once a bill file was opened and a short title given to a bill being drafted.

-- Banning the “game-playing” tactic of holding one’s controversial bill on the floor calendar of the house of origin, waiting until standing committees have been suspended in the last week of the general session, then moving the bill over to the other house, thus avoiding a public hearing in the opposing body.

-- Curtailing the growing practice of substituting a bill with “controversial” amendments just before final votes – thus avoiding any public input on the new controversial measures inserted.

Major substitutions would mean the bill would have to go back to a standing committee for another public hearing.

-- Requiring public hearings in both the House and Senate before a bill could finally pass. Currently nearly a third of the bills that ultimately become law have a public hearing in only ONE body – even though legislative rules say bills should have two hearings.

A few of the above, or a combination of them, would have had some major impacts on how laws are made in Utah.

But they were rather quickly shunted aside as Leg Process members took on more mundane reforms.

Even those may not be adopted by lawmakers.

Before the 2014 Legislature convenes Jan. 27 in general session, a watered down report by Leg Process will be sent to legislative leaders, who may or may not take action on it.

One thing is changing – although it was an idea that grew as much out of legislative leaders than from Leg Process itself.

The first five to seven days of the 2014 Legislature will be dedicated mostly to “in-depth” program reviews by the current eight budget subcommittees. (You can see that list here.)

Utah is unique in the nation in having all legislators sit on a budget committee. The Democratic senators (because there are only five of them) actually sit on two or three budget subcommittees.

Historically, the first two weeks of each 45-day session starts with floor sessions on the first Monday afternoon. That floor time grows as the session moves along.

But a number of freshmen House Republicans complained during and after the 2013 session that they didn’t understand the bills that came up for floor votes the first week.

Considering that some long-time lawmakers want more time to “dig into” state departmental budgets, Leg Process members and GOP leaders decided to restructure meetings and floor time during the first week.

While legislative insiders may see the change, media reporters and general legislative observes will see more budget committee time and fewer votes that really might matter.

Leg Process members also complained about the number of bills that are now routinely put on the consent calendars in both the House and Senate.

A “consent” bill is introduced by the floor sponsor, with no debate by members. It is then voted on and must pass with unanimous “yea” votes, or it fails.

Back in the early 1990s, maybe 40 bills were passed in the House and Senate on consent – with no debate.

That number is now up to over 100 in each body. Sometimes these are the same bills, sometimes not.

Up to a fourth of the new laws or resolutions passed by the Utah Legislature have no floor debate. Nada. Nothing.

And if it is an interim committee-approved bill, placed right to the floor consent calendar, they don’t even get a public standing committee hearing during the 45-day general session.

That bill’s public hearing was back in the previous summer’s interim day committee process.

Long-time House member Mel Brown, R-Kamas, and House chair of Legislative Process, said time and again during meetings this summer that the Utah Legislature is doing a fine job in passing more and more new laws, but a lousy job in passing “’quality” legislation – taking the time to hear, debate and amend bills to make better laws.

Just think about it, said Brown: Twenty percent of all new laws passed by the Legislature get no debate in one or both houses.

Bang! A standing or interim committee recommends the bill go to consent. The sponsor explains the bill and a vote is taken – with never a dissenting vote.

But the consent calendar isn’t the only concern.

In the 2000 Legislature, 753 bills were introduced; 393 passed.

In 2013, 748 bills were introduced, five fewer than in 2000. Yet 524 bills passed; 131 more.

Thus, 70 percent of the bills introduced passed.

And most of the 30 percent failures didn’t come because of House or Senate members voting the bill down.

No. Most of those failed bills died on the floor calendars as legislators rushed in the last week to vote more and more bills into law.

In 2013, the House voted down only 13 bills after floor debate.

But senators were even worse. Last general session they killed only six bills in floor votes.

Six bills failed in the Senate out of 748 introduced.

So, you might say, standing committees must have killed a lot of bills, right?

Nope.

In the 2013 Legislature the dozen House standing committees, combined, tabled (killed) not one bill. Not one.

The Senate standing committees, combined, tabled (killed) one bill. One.

Now, to be fair. It’s become standard practice for bills that DID NOT get approval in a standing committee to be sent back to that body’s Rules Committee when standing committees stop meeting toward the end of the session. Thus, committees don’t need to table bills to stop them – just don’t take any action on them at all.

And Rules holds those bills, in theory and mostly in practice.

But there are times when GOP leaders decide they want a bill voted on the floor even though it DID NOT get a positive recommendation from a standing committee.

This doesn’t happen a lot. But it happens.

Even though it is a legislative rule that a bill must have a hearing in both a House and Senate standing committee, it’s become a rule that is violated just about as much as it is followed.

Example: In the 2013 Legislature 267 bills that ultimately passed had a hearing in both houses.

But 239 passed bills had a hearing in only one house – either the House or the Senate, and almost always that hearing happened in the house of origin.

Thus 45.6 percent of the bills passed last general session technically violated the dual-hearing rule.

How does that happen?

Well, the other body just suspends the two-hearing rule and goes ahead and votes the bill into law anyway.

Brown got the Leg Process committee to approve a proposed new rule that would say that if a bill didn’t get a standing committee hearing in the opposing body, it would take 2/3rds vote to consider that bill on the floor.

Now, the minority Democrats’ numbers have shrunk so low that they don’t make up 1/3 in either the House or Senate.

But if they were over 1/3 (and they have been in the recent past), then that would mean the minority party could stop a disliked Republican bill, if that bill didn’t have a standing committee hearing in both houses.

In theory, that’s some power.

But Brown’s 2/3rds proposal has not yet been adopted by GOP leadership. And without their support, it’s going nowhere.

Stayed tuned to UtahPolicy. If GOP leaders adopt any of the Legislative Processes’ water-down reforms, you’ll read about them here.

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