Bob Bernick's Notebook: Things Have Sure Changed

Written by Bryan Schott on . Posted in Today At Utah Policy

At a social event the other night I bumped into Cap Ferry, and as two old guys will we began to reminisce about how the Legislature was back in the day and how things have changed.

 

Cap didn’t know I would write about this, so I’m not going to quote him directly.

But his recollections did get me to thinking. . . .

I first covered the Utah Legislature on a part-time basis starting in 1980. That is 33 years ago.

My beat back then for the Deseret News was Salt Lake City Hall. And I would go up to the Legislature to cover local government issues.

Cap was the Senate President, a Republican from Box Elder County.

Jim Hansen was the House speaker – the same Jim Hansen who would go on to the U.S. House representing Utah’s 1stCongressional District.

Back in the 1980s the Legislature was a very different place than today.

There were no computers. All the bills were printed on paper, and the Legislature had a professional printing office with presses that could bang out dozens of copies of all 600 or so bills.

Each chamber had a huge black board where a staffer would write in chalk the number of each bill. And when a bill was circled – held for further debate – the bill’s number was actually circled in chalk.

Media reporters sat in special areas on the floor of the House and Senate, and could walk along the inside chamber walls to talk to leadership on the back row during floor debate.

We could call the floor phones of each member and interview them while debate was going on. You could even call the president and speaker at their rostrums and interview them while they were running a floor session.

Today we sit in the galleries with much less access to leaders and rank-and-file members.

Legislators back then controlled their own bills – physically controlled them. Often a reporter would hear that a bill was “circulating,” meaning a printed copy was out among lobbyists or other lawmakers, but not yet introduced.

If a reporter wanted to get a jump on a bill, he usually had to dog the sponsoring lawmaker until the guy (and it was usually a guy, there were few female lawmakers back then) would finally give you a copy.

(In fact, in the small 29-member Senate there was not a women’s restroom. Female Senate staffers or senators had to use the women’s public restroom or had to use the small facility on the House side of the Capitol.)

A few attorney/legislators actually wrote their own bills and introduced them without review by the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel.

That office had an official stamp they would put on bills that had come through their office, and it was rumored on more than one occasion that a legislator would “borrow” that stamp and put it on his own bills, which in fact had not been drafted by a legislative attorney.

Lobbyists routinely wrote bills (there is some argument that lobbyists even today have too much say in the wording of specific bills).

Back then the Legislature would meet for 60 days every two years, and in the off years would meet for 20 days. Today each session is 45 days.

The short 20-day sessions were supposed to be only for setting the upcoming year’s budget. If you wanted a bill passed, you had to get two-thirds vote in both houses just to debate your non-budget bill.

Twenty-day sessions were like drinking from a fire hydrant – things got really crazy, bills flying around no one had seen. Late committee meetings going until midnight days on end.

It was wild and woolly, who knows what could pop up – and it usually did.

Today, the Utah House Republican caucus is open to the media and public most of the time. The Senate GOP caucus is always closed.

But back in the early 1980s it was the other way around. The Senate GOP caucus was always open; the House’s was always closed.

Before several remodelings of the legislative offices and committee meeting rooms, there were large air vents above the doors going into the meeting rooms on the north hallway outside of the House Chambers.

One of those rooms is where the large House GOP closed caucus was held. (The House majority caucus room is still in that location today.)

During the two-hour closed House GOP caucuses – especially towards the end of each general session – I would take a newspaper and walk down to just opposite one of those air vents, sit on the large leather couch and pretend to read.

Actually, I was listening for any snippets of loud voices coming out of that air vent.

If the House Republicans were really arguing about an issue or budget item, I could sometimes hear parts of the conversation. I got pretty good at recognizing voices. And after the meeting broke up, I’d sally up to a legislator who I’d heard yelling in the closed meeting and say something like: “I heard you were upset in the caucus today,” didn’t like X or Y or whatever.

More often than not, but guy would grimace, thinking one of his colleagues had snitched on him to me, and then tell me on the record what he was concerned about.

Meanwhile, over in the open GOP Senate caucus meeting, several of the older senators would put their folding chairs up against the back wall, lean back and take a nap.

More than once the majority leader conducting the meeting would have to call out to wake them up before they took a caucus position vote. It got so they didn’t really even care that I was in the meeting.

They would bad mouth the governor – it was Democratic Scott M. Matheson, so that was allowed – or criticize House Republicans for not going along with what the Senate majority wanted.

In the mid-1980s the rooms around the chambers were remodeled, and the small conference room where the Senate Democrats met (at one time there were only five of them) was turned into a large men’s restroom.

Yeah, the Senate minority caucus room became a toilet.

Having no place to meet for lunch and caucus, the Democrats complained. And so the Senate Republicans asked the Dems to come into their open caucus, have lunch with them, and get briefed on whatever topic was being talked about at that caucus.

No one even thought this was strange – the Senate Democrats and Republicans caucusing together, with the media present – at that time when there were generally such good feelings across the aisle in the Senate.

I can remember that a couple of Democratic senators, like Omar Bunnell of Price and Rex Black of Rose Park, would even vote in the joint caucus on issues the Republicans brought up. The GOP Senate leadership wanted to know if they had 15, a majority, votes for this or that on the floor.

And it saved time and effort if a few Democrats were in the Senate GOP caucus and let their votes be known.

The Senate in those days was an elite old boys club.

One year the Republicans didn’t want to sponsor a bill that likely would make their grass-roots upset. But the GOP still wanted it passed.

They asked Sen. Eldon Money, D-Spanish Fork, (yes, there was actually a Democratic senator from Utah County!) to sponsor it.

Money, a slow talking, much loved farmer, rose to introduce his bill on the 2nd reading calendar. He hemmed and hawed; he tried to explain it. But the more he talked, the more GOP senators asked questions.

Flustered, Money said: “Now wait a minute, you all promised that if I ran this bill you wouldn’t ask any questions.”

Loud laughter. The Republican senators sat down and Money’s bill passed unanimously.

Was it better government back then?

Certainly, a few insider lobbyists had great power – there were probably less than 50 lobbyists working the general session, not the 500 or more we see today.

There were fewer personal attacks; more good feelings among the members.

But there were also fewer women and minorities in both bodies. (This past year, for the first time, there are more women House Democrats than there are male minority members.)

Leaders of both political parties were more open about what they needed to accomplish and the politics of getting major measures passed.

I can recall a House speaker who used to give me the printed agenda after the Tuesday and Thursday mornings joint leadership meetings, and discuss with me what was talked about.

Just this past year House and Senate GOP leaders were told not to speak to the media about their leadership meetings.

Certainly with the hi tech bill tracking systems now in place citizens can quickly find bills, get updates, and listen in to committee and floor debates online in real time.

No longer is the legislative process as secret and mystical. With a little effort, even a citizen in St. George – 300 miles away – can communicate with their legislator and follow what is going on in the general session day to day.

But in other ways, lawmakers are more removed.

Now most committee rooms and legislators’ offices are designed to keep the public away.

A legislator can walk private, closed hallways to and from committee rooms and his office. No longer do they have to walk hallways or grounds between buildings where constituents, protesters or citizens can grab them.

Where most all of the 104 part-time lawmakers used to walk out into the public hallways and talk to lobbyists and others, now those folks can be called back into private back hallways or lounges to speak with lawmakers.

Isn’t it human nature? The more technology makes us and our actions available, the more we use other means to keep people away from us.

I don’t long for the good old days in the Legislature.

But things sure have changed.

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