Interim study often is the bone yard of bills lawmakers really don’t want to deal with.
Meanwhile, in a corresponding Senate committee a bill originally drafted to curtail so-called “boxcar bills,” but which was changed significantly, passed and will be considered by the whole Senate.
Both the House and Senate Rules Committees, which normally sift, or prioritize, bills for hearings, met as standing committees and either killed or approved changes to legislative rules – the critical regulations that detail the process of debating, hearing and voting on bills and budgets.
Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, wanted to give the 75 representatives the chance to just abstain from voting on a measure they believe is a conflict of interest.
Under current rules, each legislator must vote on every bill if he or she is in the Capitol Building when that vote takes place on the floor of either the House or Senate.
HR1 would have only applied to the House. It says that a representative can decide for himself whether to vote aye, no or abstain from voting on any bill or resolution.
“You now can vote yes, no or take a walk,” said Nielson, referring to the practice of some representatives to leave the floor and, if need be, hide out in some other area of the Capitol so as not to be found in case there was a “call of the house.”
A call of the house means the sergeants of arms run through the hallways calling out “call of the house” and all Representatives are supposed to come back to the floor to vote.
But over the years there has been the practice that on some tough votes, representatives just leave the floor and don’t vote at all, being marked as absent.
Nielson said it would be better for all concerned – for transparency and accountability – for House members to be able to just vote “present and abstaining,” and, if they wished, explain their conflict.
It would be better for the legislator not to have to vote for or against a bill that he or she had a clear conflict of interest in.
Current law says a lawmaker has a conflict if the bill would make a financial difference to him or a member of his immediate family. But he must vote on it anyway.
For example, if a legislator owned a car dealership, and a bill would require such dealerships to be closed one day a week (as a current law does), then the lawmaker could abstain from voting via a conflict of interest, but still participate in the debate and/or voting process.
But Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, in the House Rules Committee said HR1 was a “live grenade” because if a legislator voted in favor of a bill that later proved to be a conflict for him, he could end up “going through hell” either through an ethics investigation or a public scandal – and he could lose his office.
Hutchings said across the nation this past year there were 1,100 elected officials charged with criminal acts, much less being called on the carpet for any ethics violations.
“We better be darn sure of what we are doing” before they allow an abstention vote that could have ethical consequences, said Hutchings.
HR1 was sent to interim study, which kills it for this session, which ends March 14.
In other action, the House Rules Committee, acting as a standing committee, approved of
HJR4, sponsored by Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville.
The rewriting of rules on who can visit the House floor and other “secured” areas contained one interesting change – the way a House member can yield his time to other members.
There is a way to “game” the current rules system, noted Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield.
A member can yield his time to a friendly colleague, who can make a motion to substitute a bill or make an amendment, and if that passes, he can then yield his time to another colleague who can move to cut off debate.
Without ever going through the speaker’s chair, a bill can be run through the House by this method, jumping from one member by yielding time to another.
Ray said current House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, is very fair, and usually calls on all members who want to speak or make an amendment.
But in the past, said Ray, who is in his 11th Legislative session, “some speakers have been more dictators than speakers” and wouldn’t recognize him to make an amendment.
By “playing this pawn in the chess game,” Ray said he’s has been able to offer an amendment to the body even when the speaker wouldn’t recognize him and let him speak.
“Why would we want to give up that tool?” asked Ray.
Dunnigan said it is still better to require the openness of the process allowed for by HR4; and adding to House rules that if a member yields his time to a colleague, that colleague can’t make a motion.
“Otherwise, within the rules you can orchestrate whatever you want” in floor debate, Dunnigan added.
Former House member Cory Holdaway, who now works as a lobbyist for the Utah Education Association, said HR4 doesn’t address another problem in the bill passing process.
As reported previously by UtahPolicy, Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber, has HR2. It would demand that no bill could pass the House unless it had had a hearing in both the House and the Senate.
HR2 was on the Rules agenda Monday, but the committee adjourned without hearing it.
Holdaway said more and more, savvy legislators are timing their bills so that they are heard in the originating body in a standing committee, but are not heard in a standing committee in the other body.
For example, said Holdaway, SB110 has been circled (held) on the Senate floor voting calendar since the second week of the Legislature.
Holdaway guesses that sponsor Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, is holding it there until the House’s standing committees no longer meet (the committees’ last meetings are Wednesday).
Then it will be passed in the Senate and go directly to House for sifting, and will never get a hearing in the House, (presumably SB110 would have gone before the House Education Committee, where it may not get a friendly reception).
SB110 deals with school budgeting, “and it is a real concern in the education community,” said Holdaway.
Under SB110 it appears that individual school principals will be deciding how to allocate 85 percent of the state’s Weighted Pupil Unit spending, including teacher salaries. The WPU is the major funding aid to Utah’s 41 individual school districts.
The school district board would have to approve the principals’ budgets, but SB110 could have real impacts on teacher salaries, or the equality of salaries district-wide, opponents of the bill fear.
“There has been gamesmanship to avoid a committee hearing” in the opposing body, said Holdaway, “to avoid the extra hurdle that a bill would otherwise have.”
Stephenson told UtahPolicy that SB110 is having a hard time in the Legislature in part because of “disinformation” being spread by Holdaway and others.
“I’m not holding it over here (in the Senate) to avoid a House (standing) committee,” said Stephenson. “I’m holding it to try to get it passed over here. I have to have time to educate other senators or to change the bill to get it passed. I’m not playing games, I’m fighting disinformation – they’re saying this is some kind of voucher bill, and it’s got nothing to do with vouchers.”
Clearly disappointed that his HR2 won’t have a hearing, and is so dead, Powell told UtahPolicy that he doesn’t know where his issue of late-session game-playing on bills now goes.
Perhaps requiring bills get a standing committee hearing in both houses could be studied during the interim.
In Senate Rules, Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, got his SJR3 approved. It will not go before the whole Senate.
In the UtahPolicy story linked to above, Osmond says he originally wanted to stop most boxcar bills – bills introduced by number and short title by the second week of each legislative session, but which have no text.
In the past, bills such as 2011’s HB477 – the GRAMA “reform” bill – were boxcar bills that were introduced late in the session then run quickly through the bill-passing process.
While Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, Senate Rules Committee chairman, noted that SJR3 wouldn’t have impact HB477 action, several committee members said that it would still be a step forward and may reduce the number of boxcar bills in the future.
SJR3 will push “lazy” lawmakers, who may think they can introduce bills late in the session and get them passed just because of who they are, into introducing their important bills earlier, said Senate Minority Assistant Whip Pat Jones, D-Holladay.
Osmond’s rule change would say that none of the three priority bills each of the 104 lawmakers may designate each session can be a boxcar bill.
Priority bills must be numbered and have a descriptive title in order to go forward.
While this is inside baseball for most Utahns, who rarely examine legislative procedures, in reality curtailing boxcar bills would greatly harm secrecy in the Legislature.
As reported previously, Osmond said House and Senate GOP leaders have agreed to reactivate a special legislative process study committee this summer to look at any number of reforms, including further restricting the use of boxcar bills.