The 75-member Utah House is going to look differently come the 2015 Legislature.
No, it will still be mostly middle age white guys in suits.
However, it will be different through experience – political, that is.
While pundits like me often complain that Utah legislators leave Capitol Hill only through retirement, resignation or death, the fact this year is that half of the GOP House caucus will have four years or less experience in office come the 2015 general session, which starts Jan. 26.
Let me repeat that: Half of the ruling House Republicans will be newcomers or have less than three general sessions of experience in office.
After Tuesday’s shocking vote canvass counting in Salt Lake County, Democrats lost three seats that on Election Night went to Democrats.
So, by UtahPolicy’s new count, 31 of the 63 House Republicans will have four years experience or less.
Most likely, that is a record of inexperience, at least in modern day history of the Utah House.
In one way, this fact has already made a difference.
While candidates for speaker always campaign among all incoming House Republicans, Speaker-elect Greg Hughes, R-Draper, told me this spring (when he decided to challenge Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, for the top job) that he was stressing his relationships with younger members of the House, explaining to them how he intended to shepherd and help them as they learn the legislative ropes; and be receptive to some of the changes they wanted in House operations.
Hughes won going away in the speaker’s race. And as one Dee supporter later told me: “Brad just wasn’t able to connect with the younger (GOP caucus) members.”
It used to be a representative had to have some tenure under his belt before he was elected to leadership.
But two “young bucks” were picked as new leaders: Both Majority Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, and Assistant Whip Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, were first elected in 2010.
They are going into leadership with only four general sessions of experience – the 2015 Legislature will be their fifth.
Now, there are a few old dogs in the House to give advice and guidance to the new crew. But they were not looked to for elected leadership.
Rep. Mel Brown, R-Kamas, ran for speaker. He is a former speaker who first came to the House in 1986, leaving in 2000 for a short time out of office.
Brown had only four votes for speaker when Hughes reached 31 and won the contest. (The three Republicans who won their elections in Tuesday’s canvass did not get to vote for leaders, that election held two days after the Nov. 4 general election.)
Even though the 2015 House will be stacked with newcomers, or relative newcomers, representatives with just a few years in office have picked up on the “bill-of-the-month” club filing frenzy.
Legislative staffers are finding a record number of bills being requested for drafting, and leaders really don’t know what to do about it.
In Wednesday’s open House caucus it was reported that 692 bill file requests have been made. At this time last year, 610 bill files had been opened.
Of that 692, 371 are “protected.” That means they are secret, at the sponsor’s request, and drafting attorneys can’t talk about them to anyone, even other lawmakers.
The public, including media reporters, don’t know what those secret bills are, nor what the topics may be.
If this bill-filing trend continues through the general session, lawmakers and the public will see a new record number of bills filed, upwards of 1,170.
All to be dealt with in some manner in the 45-day general session, which is one of the shortest among the 50 states.
One answer to the flood of work is to ask for more time – in this case a legislative committee recommends a constitutional change to allow the general session to be 45 working days instead of 45 consecutive calendar days.
Those 45 working days could come in a 90-day block, so legislators could recess for a bit, go back to their districts, and talk to constituents.
Some of the part-time lawmakers, who already believe they are taking too much time away from their day jobs and families, are already pushing back against such a change, which would have to be approved by voters in the 2016 general election.
I offer a different solution, which has more benefits than just lessoning legislative workload: Change the Utah Constitution so that legislative leaders can call the Legislature into special session without the governor’s approval.
Currently, only the governor can call a legislative special session, only he can set the agenda.
The Legislature is a separate branch of government, supposedly co-equal.
But the executive and judicial branches don’t need permission from another branch to meet and do their work, and neither should the Legislature.
Make that constitutional change, and leaders could call lawmakers back in special session during the rest of the year to make needed tweaks and adjustments.
For example, lawmakers could set the upcoming year’s budget before the end of the general session – as they do now. But then just before the fiscal year ends June 30, legislators could come back in for a few days to update tax revenue projections or deal with budget matters arising since the early March adjournment.
Another good change would be not to kill all bills not passed by the end of the first general session of a two-year Legislative term.
If a bill passed the House in an odd-numbered year, it could stay on the Senate calendar for action the following general session.
That way both bodies would have bills ready for debate and votes the first day of the new general session, resulting in less wasted time, more productivity.
Speaking of better use of time, newly elected leaders have decided to change the legislative schedule for the first two weeks of the 2015 Legislature.
Last year, during the first week only budget subcommittees met. This gave new legislators more time to study complex state agency budgets, but cut down on the time standing committees could hear and act on bills.
The result was that about half of all the bills passed in the 2014 Legislature passed the final week of the session, with some lawmakers quietly admitting they didn’t fully understand all the legislation they were passing.
Here’s the new schedule:
-- First two weeks budget committees meet on a rotating basis 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. daily. Then one hour of floor time. Lunch. Then standing committees meet, on a rotating basis, in the afternoon.
With a record-number of bills coming at them, outgoing Majority Leader Dee told his caucusWednesday they all needed to do a better job of “shepherding your bills” early in the 2015 session.
While some caucus members want a rule or law limiting the number of bills a legislator can introduce, another way – suggested Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville – would be to give each legislator some number of bills, say eight, with the understanding that any bills over that number would just be held by the Rules Committee, and never see the light of day.
Meanwhile, new Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, says he’s working on a plan to better deal with the huge number of bills that are passed in the final week of each 45-day general session.
In any case, said Dee, if a lawmaker wants his bills to pass it’s clear he need to get his bills drafted and introduced early and quickly move them through the committee hearing process in both the House and Senate.
Dawdlers will likely pay the price of seeing their bills killed at session’s end.