An effort to limit to five the number of bills a House member could introduce each session failed Wednesday in a tie committee vote.
Rep. Craig Frank, R-Pleasant Grove, said he’s been considering for some time the growing number of bills and resolutions that are introduced and passed each 45-day general session.
He proposed HR4, a House rule that would cap at five the number of bills a representative could introduce. He placed in the legislation a number of exceptions, like budget and bonding bills, that would not count against a lawmaker’s five sponsorships.
The House Rules Committee, sitting as a standing committee, heard HR4 Wednesday afternoon. A motion to pass the bill out to the whole House for consideration failed in a 4-4 tie, with Rules Committee Chairman Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan, being absent. Thus, the proposal is likely dead.
Over the years various suggestions have been made in an effort to slow or stop the annual increase in the number of bills filed by the 104 part-time lawmakers.
Bills are still being introduced in the 2012 session, even though there is only a week left before adjournment midnight March 8.
So Frank compared the growth in bill files opened, bills numbered and introduced, and bills passed from 2002 to 2011.
A record number of bills were introduced and passed in the 2011 Legislature.
The numbers, so far, this session are a bit lower than last year’s record.
It’s not so much the kind of bills that are being filed, says Frank, but just the sheer weight of the numbers.
-- More than 3,500 new laws have been passed by the Utah Legislature over the last decade.
-- In the life span of an 80-year-old Utahn, there will be 28,000 new laws to obey.
-- Across the 50 state legislatures last year 40,000 new laws were adopted.
“Where are we going with all this?” asked Frank. “What are we doing” to Utah and U.S. citizens? And who are all these new laws really adopted for?
U.S. and Utah citizens are simply being buried in new government regulations and laws, he said.
Utah has one of the shortest general sessions of the states, just 45 calendar days.
And that’s one reason that while the national average per legislature of bills passed is 800, Utah is still on the lower end with 504 passed in 2011.
But even that is too much, Frank believes.
“How many of these laws (that the Utah House and Senate pass) are really known by the representatives?” asked Frank.
The clear answer is that a number of new state laws are passed with many legislators not really understanding what the laws do or who they impact and how.
While Frank did not say this before the House Rules Committee, in a previous interview with UtahPolicy Frank questioned that some legislators are introducing bills not for their constituents, but for special interest groups of one kind or another.
Frank said in the nine sessions he’s been in the Legislature, “I’ve averaged 6.5 bills passed each session.
“So I can point the finger at myself,” he added.
Several committee members said that while they believe Frank has raised a real concern, they don’t think self-imposing a five-bill limit is the right thing to do.
Some representatives may wish to take on more work than others, and so may carry more bills, his critics said.
Some representatives may take on issues brought to them by people outside of their district, but that still doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy causes.
It’s wrong to try to limit the “free speech” of legislators by limiting the number of issues they can address by legislation.
And even though the growing bill numbers put more stress on legislative attorneys and researchers, the staff does seem to get the needed work done.
Rep. Mike Morley, R-Spanish Fork, who voted against HR4, said he sees just a few lawmakers carrying a lot of bills, and other legislators shouldn’t be limited because of those eager beavers.
“Maybe if we just talk to Dougall we can solve this,” Morley joked.
In a previous UtahPolicy story it was noted that Rep. John Dougall, R-American Fork, introduced 27 bills this session. While not a record, it is certainly up in that range.
Dougall has since said that he abandoned several “boxcar” bills – bills that were introduced by title only – and that several other measures were turned over to colleagues, so he’s not running 27 anymore.
Dougall told UtahPolicy that after the story ran several House members came up to him and were jokingly calling him “Mr. 27.”
Rep. Jack Draxler, R-Logan, praised Frank for his effort, saying: “I think you are up to something here. I don’t know if five is the correct number or if you have enough exceptions” to that five total.
“I try to limit the number of bills I introduce just to keep my sanity” in the hectic, fast-paced Legislature.
But Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, said what would happen if a legislator already had his five bills and then some issue jumped up during the session? He wouldn’t be able to accommodate a constituent’s real need.
Frank said there are all kinds of ways around that problem. Another legislator, sponsoring fewer than five bills, could help out the topped-out lawmaker and carry the bill.
The legislator could abandon one of his lesser bills to make room. Or, as the rule is written, any lawmaker who didn’t have five bills could “lend” the topped-out colleague one of his unfulfilled slots.
Rep. Neal Hendrickson, D-West Valley, said as a minority Democrat he often doesn’t sponsor many bills because just having a D behind his name kills some of his measures.
Often a state department or agency boss will ask a GOP lawmaker to carry a bill for him, and that would cut into the number the majority party member may carry for his own people.
And “some (legislators) live in areas with very involved constituents. They need more bills” to meet the legitimate needs of their citizens, said Hendrickson.
But, said Frank, limiting the number of bills a lawmaker can file will do something else: “Clearly some bills are not in the interest of (a legislator’s) constituents.” They are in the interest of a special interest.
“And I don’t think that is limiting free speech,” he said.
Finally, committee members said the Senate won’t go along with Frank’s idea.
(That’s why he’s running a House rule and not running a joint rule, which the Senate would have to agree with before it could be implemented.)
Senators, who usually run more bills than House members anyway, would just pick up the slack and overall the Legislature wouldn’t be any better off – House members would just be hurting themselves by limiting their own bill numbers.
In a way, said Morley, Frank’s bill limit bill is similar to calls for term limits for legislators.
In the end, legislators, as representatives of the people, just have to decide what is best for themselves and their constituents. Artificial limits shouldn’t be imposed.
“You could end up saying to a constituent: “I’ve met my (five bill) limit. I can’t help you. You will have to go to a senator or another representative,” said Morley. And that’s not the way a representative form of government should work.
Dan Deuel, an Ogden citizen, supported Frank’s resolution.
Deuel pointed out that if every House and Senate member limited themselves to five bills, because so many of the 104 legislators run fewer than five bills, the overall total comes out about where the Legislature is now without the artificial limit. Thus Frank’s goals could be met without great upheaval.
“I love this legislative process,” said Deuel. “I’ve had some bills run for me” by his own representatives over the years.
“But how many of these bills actually get studied? Are they really vetted before they are passed?”
Fewer bills, Deuel argued, would mean more time on each bill, more attention to the bills that are passed – and thus better legislation overall.
“Maybe (legislators) would be more cautious in what they do introduce,” he said.
Frank, who is running for the state Senate this year, said he may well bring up the issue next year, this time from the upper body.