When it was announced during the 2013 Legislature that the Legislative Process Committee would be reorganized, reappointed and take on some substantive reforms during this current interim, there appeared to be some real hope that several lingering problems in how the Utah Legislature does business would be addressed, if not fixed.
But the committee has met only twice so far this year and now has only the October and November interim days to come up with some solutions.
And already several of the most-impactful items, like allowing Utah’s 104 part-time lawmakers to abstain from voting in cases of clear conflicts of interest, have been dumped.
No further study on them at all.
House co-chair of the committee, Rep. Mel Brown, R-Kamas, now one of the senior lawmakers, started the September process meeting apologizing for not calling several committees over the summer.
Brown, now the House budget chair and a former speaker, said there were conflicting schedules and other matters of interest.
And it certainly is true that the committee’s legal counsel, legislative general counsel John Fellows, has been busy setting up the House’s probe into any misdeeds by GOP Attorney General John Swallow.
Still, it had been hoped by some reformers in the House and Senate that Leg Process – as it is informally known – might get some substantive issues resolved this interim.
Now that is up for debate.
First off, several junior legislators who have pushed for some changes were not appointed to the committee by House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy.
The membership is here:
Sen. Lyle W. Hillyard (R), Chair
Rep. Melvin R. Brown (R), Chair
Sen. Gene Davis (D)
Sen. Stephen H. Urquhart (R)
Rep. Patrice M. Arent (D)
Rep. Mike K. McKell (R)
Rep. Lee B. Perry (R)
Rep. Jennifer M. Seelig (D)
Hillyard has been in the Legislature since Moses was a boy, first elected to the House in 1980 and coming to the Senate in 1984.
In fact, Hillyard and Brown were co-chairs of a earlier version of Leg Process back in the day.
Even after the issue of being able to abstain in voting has been shelved – Leg Process members said the Utah Constitution says lawmakers shall have recorded votes of “aye” and “nay,” so it seems an abstention could be on shaky legal grounds – there are some issues that could still resolved.
One of the major concerns – recently seen in recurring troubles – is a legislator “playing games” with the long-held power of circling of bills on the floor calendars.
Freshmen and senior legislators alike are complaining that some legislators – who are versed in legislative rules – are holding their controversial bills on their own floor calendars by circling them.
(Circling means the bills are held in place on the floor calendar, but no action is taken for weeks on end.)
The bills are uncircled late in the 45-day general session, passed in the home body and sent to other chamber. But since standing committees are cancelled late in the session, those bills are not heard in the opposing body, but go straight to the sifting rules committees.
The controversial bills are then brought directly to the opposing body’s floor for a vote. And there is less time to amend the bills, as would be the case if it had appeared in a standing committee.
It is a procedural tactic aimed at blunting criticism of the bill.
And, ironically, several Leg Process comments were made that lobbyists and other special interests dislike the practice.
Basically, any opposition to such bills aren’t well organized at the beginning of the session, and so may not show up to the home standing committee hearing.
Toward the end of the session special interests want to pack the committee hearing in the opposing body, but don’t get the chance since standing committees have already been cancelled.
On another topic, it is always interesting to see how items that can HELP legislators themselves seem to rise to the top of any kind of debate or study.
Several Leg Process members, including Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Holladay, are pushing for better constituent services – some kind of formal staff office where the part-time legislators can get aid in communicating with and helping their own voters.
Utah, compared to other states, does have a rather lean legislative staff.
And unlike many larger states, there are not separate Republican and Democratic staffers – all Utah legislative attorneys, researchers, budgeters and auditors are officially nonpartisan and work for both party members.
Utah legislators do, during the general session, have paid interns, usually political science students from various local colleges.
But Arent and other lawmakers want more substantive constituent services – in theory paid for out of taxpayer monies. Leg Process will take up that issue in its last two meetings.
Several lawmakers are also concerned about how some bills – usually, but not always, backed by GOP leadership – can be filed as “boxcars,” only a vague short title and no body text, and then sprung on lawmakers and the public toward the end of the session.
A classic example of this was the 2011 session’s HB477.
The bill is filed as a boxcar – no text – under a general title like “government amendments.” At the end of the session, in HB477’s case, text aimed at “reforming” the state’s open meetings law was placed in and the bill was quickly run through both houses.
HB477 was formally introduced and passed the House and Senate (with committee hearings in both bodies) in 72 hours.
A media outcry ensued.
GOP Gov. Gary Herbert signed HB477, but later called a special session to repeal it.
Fellows complains that too many “priority” bills (each legislator gets three) are being held for late-session introduction.
Legislative attorneys must give priority drafting to such bills. And that means it is becoming more and more difficult to direct effective bill-drafting flow.
One idea is making all priority bill boxcars have “definitive” long titles. In other words, no longer could a priority bill boxcar just be titled “government amendments” – but would have to have enough title information that other lawmakers, lobbyists, the media and public would know what that bill really is about.
Most of what Leg Process is still considering is, of course, legislative inside baseball – not that interesting to the public at large.
And it still remains to be seen if the Leg Process will recommend to the 2014 Legislature any substantive reforms in how the Legislature goes about the public’s business.