New Online Feature Allows Tracking of Bills on Utah's Capitol Hill

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

Always looking for more public input and transparency in their process, Utah lawmakers’ official web site has a new feature – you can “track” a bill from the day it’s sponsor opens a bill file right through numbering and, hopefully, passage.

 

Or defeat, depending on the bill’s political future.

Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan; and Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City; have for several years been thinking up ways to open up the bill-passing process.

Their concerns range from the increase in “secret” bill files to the increasing tactic of a sponsor holding his bill in his chamber, releasing it late in the 45-day general session so it doesn’t get a public hearing in the other chamber.

UtahPolicy heard some complaints over the summer that the Legislature’s bill file page was down – you couldn’t look up which lawmakers had opened 2014 bills on which subjects.

That was because legislative IT gurus were reworking the pages, putting in some pretty neat accessibility features.

The site came up several weeks ago.

You can get it here.

Ric Cantrell, the Senate chief of staff, tells UtahPolicy that the site was down for much of the spring and summer – mainly because programmers were working on a way for citizens to track so-called “boxcar” bills.

Those are bills introduced that have no text, just a short title and bill sponsor.

Osmond wanted a way to track those bills from the day their bill file is opened, said Cantrell, who has been a leader in getting the Legislature to move quicker and more smoothly into the hi tech era.

“Each bill, once it has been opened, now has a unique tracking number,” said Cantrell. That number follows the bill after it has been formally introduced and given a bill designation, like HB1 or SB395.

As it now stands, when an outside user signs up to track a bill, the Legislature’s web site designates that tracking to your specific computer or other device. You don’t have to sign up beyond just clicking to track that bill.

For example, on the Legislature’s main bill web site click on a lawmaker (or click on “All Senators” or “All Representatives” to see bills for the whole body) and you can not only see what bills he or she have opened for the upcoming 2014 general session, you can click the box under “Track” and you will automatically get a notification whenever there is a change in that bill’s status.

When the bill is finally introduced and given a number, seamlessly (or so I’m told) the Legislature’s normal bill tracking system kicks in and you will be email notified when the bill is heard in a standing committee, scheduled for floor debate and so on through the process.

Pretty nifty.

Now, the Legislature has made no changes in the “protected” bill operations.

A legislator can, when he originally asks a legislative attorney to start drafting a bill, keep that bill secret.

Legislators like to call that a “protected” bill, it doesn’t look good to voters to acknowledge that he is secretly drafting a bill.

The code of silence is so strong, the drafting attorney can’t even tell other legislators – who may be working on similar legislation – about the secret bill.

The secret bill process has been abused in the past.

You may recall that former Rep. John Dougall – now the state auditor – kept his “GRAMA reform” bill, HB477, secret until the end of the 2011 Legislature.

He and GOP leaders then sprung the bill on the public and over 72 hours passed it through the House and Senate.

A public uproar – led, it is true, by the media – ensued.

GOP Gov. Gary Herbert backed away from support. Even after the bill was recalled from his office and reworked, Herbert was still blasted publicly. He called a special session and HB477 was repealed.

It was a real public relations disaster for the GOP-controlled Legislature.

The new Legislative bill tracking, from drafting to floor votes, doesn’t affect secret bills.

But for all the bills that lawmakers release to the public from their birth, the new tracking system is a real step in transparency and should help the novice citizen to the experience lobbyist better follow legislation in which they are interested.

Finally, and this is a bit of web showmanship, the “find your legislator” page has a new feature.

On the Legislature’s home page, found here, down in the left-hand corner is a “find your legislator” site. You fill in your street address and Zip Code, and the site will find your House and Senate member, with links to their email addresses.

When you click on a box that says “remember my legislator,”

up pops nice smiling pics of your House and Senate member. And you can quickly email them with any thoughts you may have.

I’ve been told – and generally agree – that most lawmakers actually pay attention to the emails they get from their voters.

During the session legislators may be getting dozens of emails a day. But they have their interns look through the messages and lawmakers respond accordingly.

Of course, sometimes legislators get hit with automatically-generated emails from special interest groups – like the Utah Eagle Forum or gun rights groups.

Since lawmakers don’t know which of those emails come from actually constituents, they are less likely to respond.

But the new system matches voter street addresses with the House and Senate members who represent that geographic area.

So an email coming through the “find my legislators” application is from one of their own real live voters.

And if you use this process, a wise lawmaker would be smart to personally address your concerns.