SJR3, HB78 and HR2 are sponsored by relative newcomers to the state Senate and House, and are put forward by lawmakers who are already getting the reputation of bucking traditional authority – not always a good way to progress inside the insular Utah Legislature.
Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, tells UtahPolicy that he’s been working like mad behind the scenes with Senate leaders and others on SJR3, getting it in a form that may come out of the Senate Rules Committee.
The rule change would have originally outlawed “boxcar” bills after the 10th day of each general session. Boxcar bills are those introduced by a sponsor by number and short title only, with no text.
Clearly, boxcars can be abused – the most recent incident in 2011 when HB477 was a boxcar until the final week of the session when it was given text “reforming” the state’s open records/meetings law, GRAMA.
HB477 was rushed through the hearing and voting process in both the House and Senate, clearly aimed at shortening response time by the media and good government groups.
In the end, it was sent back by GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, amended and re-passed, then Herbert called a special session to repeal it.
Great embarrassment all around for GOP leaders.
HB78, by Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, would stop the practice of individual legislators having secret, or “protected,” bills drafted. Once any bill file is opened by a legislator, it would become public with a short title, sponsor’s name and the date it was opened.
Currently all secret bills must become public by the filing deadline of the 10th day of each 45-day general session.
But even then, a secret bill could become a boxcar bill, with a number but no text.
Powell also has HR2, which would stop bills like HB477 being rushed through in the final days.
It says that no bill may show up on the opposing body’s floor calendar, without a public hearing, unless two-thirds of the body votes to put it for a floor vote.
This rule may never get a hearing, said Powell, in part because it would likely curtail the practice of some lawmakers of holding their bills, often circled, on their own body’s floor calendar until late in the session.
The opposing body cancels its standing committees (a regular practice) in the final weeks; then the lawmaker moves his bill in his home body, gets it passed, and then avoids a public standing committee hearing in the other body.
“Unfortunately, some legislators are doing this regularly, I’ve noticed,” said Powell. “I want public hearings in both the House and Senate, that’s the proper process.”
Under current practice, a legislator could have a secret bill drafted – no one but the legislative attorney who is writing the bill knows it is being worked on – and then introduced as a boxcar bill -- with some general title like “government amendments” – then, towards the session’s end, it’s sprung upon the public and rushed through with only a public hearing in the originating body.
While all three of these political tactics may not happen often on one bill, it can happen. And has in the past.
Osmond and Powell, among other lawmakers, say those allowed practices – secret bills, boxcar bills and last-day votes -- singularly or in combination, should be changed or simply done away with.
To get SJR3 considered, Osmond told UtahPolicy on Wednesday, he needed to modify the rule change to say that no boxcar bill could be a priority bill. Each of the 104 legislators by rule gets three priority bills each session.
Those priorities go to the top of the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel’s list for drafting. So priority bills get a step up in the drafting, introduction, hearing and floor voting process.
Osmond says the reformed SJR3 is a step forward, especially in conjunction with the promise by GOP legislative leaders to reorganize the Joint Committee on Legislative Process and hold hearings over the interim on a number of reforms, including boxcars and “protected” bills.
Osmond says he’s asked to be on the new committee, but its membership has not yet been set.
Having a boxcar bill be a priority bill, as can now happen, requires staff attorneys, late in the general session, to stop working on other bills and push all their attention on a bill that could have been drafted early, pre-session, if only the legislator had been more conscientious.
In theory, priority bills, which are usually important legislation, would not be sprung upon the Legislature late in the session, Osmond hopes with his change.
HB78 has been held in House Rules since the session started Jan. 28. Powell was told it would be heard when Rules meets as a standing committee to consider internal operation measures. Unfortunately, it was found out that House Rules can only hear rules change bills, numbered like HR1 or HJR1, and can’t hear regular legislation, like HB1 or HB78. So HB78 is dead unless it gets before a regular standing committee quickly.
HR2 would be heard by the House Rules Committee meeting as a standing committee, but that may not happen, either, says Powell.
Democrats in the House and Senate currently are below the one-third membership level that would allow them to stop any attempt to suspend a rule, which takes a two-thirds vote of either the Senate or the House.
However, in past Legislatures, Democrats have reach one-third numbers in both the House and Senate. Thus, HR2 would let a one-third minority stop rushing any bill through in the final days of any general session – a steam-rolling power the majority Republicans probably likely want to keep.
Allowing the minority a stop-bill power was not his intent, says Powell, although he recognizes that concern.
“Late in each session, we regularly suspend the rule that the House hold a hearing on a Senate bill” to move those bills forward, said Powell. “Some legislators time their bills’ votes to avoid a hearing in the other body.
“All of us should introduce our bills publicly early in the process, get hearings in both bodies – that is best for the media and the public to become aware of what we are doing up here.”
Powell and Osmond say they believe over time most legislators will want to reform the current transparency, bill-passing concerns, and make the legislative process more open and accessible to the public.