You may recall that two lawmakers, Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan; and Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City; have both pushed legislation this session that would in effect greatly curtail the use of, do away with, boxcar bills.
Osmond’s is SJR3. Powell’s bill is still in the bill request stage and won’t be run.
And coincidently (or is it such a coincidence?) the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, which writes and researches the 600-odd bills introduced each general session, has decided not to number any bills until they have text.
Thus the absence this week of a long list of boxcar bills being formally numbered and introduced in the House and Senate, as has been the case in years past.
Osmond tells UtahPolicy that he’s close to working out an agreement with House and Senate leaders to still push his boxcar reform bill this session. He’ll sponsor the measure, which will be carried in the House by Powell.
The compromise, which couldn’t be used this session (it’s too late for that) is a bit complicated.
In essence, no boxcar bill could be introduced until the 10th day of the general session. No boxcar bill could be a “priority” bill by a legislator (and so force staff to work on it first).
And by the 11th day (the current deadline for filing all bills) all boxcar bills would have some kind of tracking process – maybe not a regular number, but some number that identifies it as a boxcar – with “a descriptive title” that let’s the public and media know what it is about, Osmond explained.
From time immemorial, it’s custom in the Utah Legislature for caucus leaders and regular rank-and-file members to introduce a bill by the filing deadline (which this year was last Thursday) with a number and short title only. No text.
This led to the wonderful game of “what is this guy really up to?”
Dozens of boxcar bills – so named because they were empty of text or substance, but still carried a number and short title – were filed as placeholders.
Maybe the sponsor would put text into the bill, formally run it. Maybe he wouldn’t.
Typically, some boxcars would have fairly informative short titles, like “Individual Personal Income Tax Rate Change.”
One could guess what that could mean.
But more and more in recent years, boxcar bill short titles have been so general in nature as to mean little, like “Government Amendments.”
But at least you could go to the sponsor and ask him or her what they had up their sleeve.
More often than not, they wouldn’t tell you. But sometimes they would.
Under the new system used in the 2013 session by leadership’s decision, each individual legislator’s boxcar bills are listed under their names in the House and Senate pages of “bill requests.”
But where as the always-inquisitive reporter could look under the numbered bills to quickly find the boxcars, this year one has to look through all the bill requests, hundreds of them, to see if a short title draws interest.
Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, says the new system is not a direct response to Osmond or Powell’s concerns.
“The boxcar system was just getting difficult to track. And we all want more transparency in the process,” said Okerlund.
Said Osmond: “Staff came to us and said boxcars were getting to be a waste of their time” – it takes resources to open and track a bill, even a bill with no text in it.
And sometimes the sponsoring legislator would be having staff work on possible text right through the session, but never formally file any text or have the bill heard. That was all a waste, said Osmond.
But it’s become more difficult over the years, as the number of boxcar bills grew, for citizens and the media to follow what was really going on.
Of course, all this was brought to a head in 2010 when a boxcar bill was turned into HB477 at the very end of the session.
That was the ill-fated GRAMA “reform” bill that was quietly made public and over just three days was voted on by the House, the Senate and sent to GOP Gov. Gary Herbert.
Herbert balked; the bill was rewritten, passed again. But there was still a public outcry. It was then repealed in a special session.
HB477 called into question the whole boxcar issue, with the public finding out just how easy the bill-passing process could be manipulated to keep a controversial bill secret until it was sprung upon the Legislature and citizens in the final session days.
“The (reform idea) is to get boxcars back to being used by leadership, for the real problems” of critical bill management; of having a vehicle to pass last-minute measures, often dealing with the budget, required at the end of each session, said Osmond, who believed the boxcar process was being misused.
Osmond and Okerlund promised that whatever the final boxcar reform measure turns out to be, every boxcar will carry a descriptive title and there will be clear way to track it through the often-complicated bill processing system.
Now, for this year, UtahPolicy readers will have to read through all of the 104 lawmakers’ “bill requests” – which are under their names on the bills/bill request legislative web site page -- and at the end of each list will be one or more (or no) new short titles that are in essence boxcars – which may have text put in them later and run before the March 14 adjournment deadline.
A better boxcar tracking system should be in place come the 2014 session, Osmond and Okerlund say.