Legislature May Open New Constituent Services Office

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

Get ready for a new constituent services office in the Utah Legislature.

 

While nothing is decided yet, legislative leaders were briefed this week on a plan to hire six new staffers in the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel at an annual cost of around $570,000.

They would be the backbone of a new, organized constituent services branch that would serve all of the 104 part-time legislators.

Currently, Utah is one of 16 states that have no formal help for legislators who routinely get requests from their voters concerning state government problems.

That doesn’t mean that lawmakers don’t deal with constituents’ problems. They do. They just do it in a haphazard, hit-and-miss process that varies greatly from one lawmaker to another.

For example, if you are Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, currently the longest-serving lawmaker and Senate budget chairman, you personally call Mike Christensen, director of Leg Research, and tell him your constituent’s problem.

Christensen either handles it himself, or he quickly assigns one of his researchers or attorneys to ferret out the answers and solutions.

“I personally don’t have much of a problem with constituent services,” Hillyard, co-chair of this year’s Legislative Process Committee, said earlier this summer.

But clearly, Hillyard added, Christensen can’t personally handle all of the complaints about state government that percolate up into Leg Research.

(If your own job, your own salary, and your office budget depends on satisfying the Senate budget chairman’s inquiries, you take care of the problem.)

The idea that Utah’s part-time Legislature needs some constituent help – even at a cost to the taxpayers -- has been around for some time.

But reorganizing the Leg Process Committee this year has given voice, and a conduit, to the constituent services idea.

Hillyard presented three options to the Legislative Management Committee this week.

-- The first is to do nothing.

Utah lawmakers have bumped along without a constituent services office up until now, and they can bump along in the future.

This has some practical political problems, however.

While some lawmakers may have the time or personal financial assets to deal with constituent complaints themselves, or hire a part-time intern, other lawmakers don’t have either time nor money.

And they may not do as good a job as they would like in satisfying voters’ complaints.

Ignore, or do a half-assed job, of helping your voters for too long, and you may find yourself out of office.

-- Second idea, hire half a dozen new folks and organize an Office of Constituent Affairs inside the current legislative staffing grid.

The logical place is Leg Research, which already has experts in dealing with state issues.

Christensen said his research shows that in 25 states – often the big states that have full-time Legislatures – each lawmaker has a district staff office that handles constituent complaints, just like U.S. House members do today.

Five states have staffs within their own individual caucuses. For example, Senate Republicans would have a few folks who deal with constituent problems; as would House Democrats.

These, of course, would be partisan positions – and there could be citizen complaints about dealing with GOP or Democratic staffers.

Six states have nonpartisan constituent affairs offices – set up like Utah’s current nonpartisan offices of Leg Research, Fiscal Analyst and Legislative Auditor General.

Sixteen states, mostly smaller, part-time Legislatures, have no constituent services offices at all.

And there, like Utah today, legislators muddle along as best they can on their own in dealing with constituent complaints.

-- The third option is to create a whole new legislative agency, or department, outside of the current three legislative staff offices.

That likely would take more staffers than just six, since it would need an executive director and so on.

While several leaders said they like the No. 2 option, the most enthusiastic were Senate Democratic leaders.

Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley, said she often fields constituent calls and, even though she knows state government well, doesn’t know how to deal with the concerns.

“Sometimes the caller tells me not to take my time, but to have my intern look into their problem. I say your talking to the intern,” because she doesn’t have one, said Mayne.

Legislators get all kinds of crazy calls – from someone saying UDOT is not using enough salt on their street in the wintertime to complaints about a rude UHP trooper giving them a ticket they didn’t deserve.

Gov. Gary Herbert has a whole office of constituent services, whose staffers deal just with complaints to state government.

Christensen said while $570,000 may sound high, it is only 3 percent of the current Utah Legislature’s budget.

“It would not be a large increase in our budget,” Christensen said.

But a constituent office, if properly organized and run, would not just be answering complaints or questions from voters, legislative staffers said.

Currently, through the staff grapevine in Leg Research, staffers see trends in constituent complaints passed along to them from lawmakers.

A lot of time and effort is wasted as, say, six legislators call six different staffers to ask about a certain complaint.

If the complaint is about snow removal on 700 East in Salt Lake City (a state road), then several staffers and/or lawmakers are taking up the time of several UDOT bosses in trying to solve the problem.

But if all those complaints went into a specific office, one staffer could deal with one UDOT boss and get the answers and the problem solved.

Even better, a constituent staff could work with other Leg Research staffers to collate similar complaints.

Talking points could then be sent out to all 104 lawmakers if the complaint were, say, asking the Legislature to expand Medicaid under Obamacare.

Legislators could actually be out front of a growing political issue – like the impeachment of former AG John Swallow or the passage in 2011 of the much-hated HB477 GRAMA “reform” bill.

Instead of each legislator having to react on his own to a public issue citizen uprising, lawmakers could speak with some kind of united front and get accurate answers quickly to upset voters, the thinking goes.

Said Hillyard: “Personally, I’d have to say no to a district staff in my area.”

The Legislature cut so many programs during the Great Recession, he said, that it would look bad if each of the 104 legislators had an office and a staff person in their hometown.

But the idea of half a dozen staffers to help 104 officeholders across the board, that is more likely – if the debate in Legislative Management is any indication.

“The thing that I hear most often,” said Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, who is retiring from office next year, “Is “Who do I call to get this fixed.” (Constituents) really want us to help them grapple with this; but who do we (legislators) call?”

“I really don’t see this (constituent services) as staff to us. They would really be staff to all” Utahns, who need help with a problem in state government and look to their representative or senator for a fix, Jones said.

“The public is really wanting this.”

Well, maybe.

We’ll see if spending half a million dollars a year in helping lawmakers deal with constituents’ problems will be part of the Legislature’s budget next year.

Lawmakers convene in their 2014 general session Jan. 27.