Bob Bernick’s notebook: Teaching old dogs new tricks

Bob BernickIf you keep your eyes open at the Utah Legislature, you can always learn something new.

This even applies to an old dog like me – who has covered lawmakers for 37 years. (Yes, I was a child reporter.)

Take, for example, HJR15, introduced by House budget chair Dean Sanpei, R-Provo, on Thursday.

Now, Sanpei is a nice guy. And when I asked him about one small part of the huge HJR15, he didn’t know. So he went and asked the expert on legislative rules on staff: Jerry Howe.

And I found out something new: To whit, there has ALWAYS been a rule that allowed bosses in the House and Senate to call a joint standing committee to deal, at the same time, with similar bills.

Now, this has never been done in my 37 years of covering the Legislature, and Howe says to his knowledge it has never happened at all.

But if legislative bosses ever decided to actually call such a joint standing committee of House and Senate members – well – some controversial bills could be moved very quickly in the always-jammed-packed final days of the 45-day sessions.

This could happen: A bill introduced one day, 24 hours later a joint standing committee is held for a public hearing, the next day the bill passes the House, and the next day the bill passes the Senate.

Slam, bam, thank you, mam!

You wouldn’t need two or three days to get a public hearing in the House standing committee, then a few more days to get a public hearing in a Senate committee.

You have just one public hearing in a joint House and Senate standing committee.

As legislative watchers know, currently the Legislature holds joint budget committees, made up of both House and Senate members. In and out of session, these joint budget committees hear spending matters and recommend spending plans to the all-powerful Executive Appropriations Committee.

But both bodies hold separate standing committees – which hear actual bills — during the 45-day general session.

Thus, a bill is supposed to get a public hearing before a standing committee in the House, and then later a public hearing in a Senate committee, or vice versa.

There’s an ongoing complaint by some in the public – and by some House members – that in the rush to end the session, as dozens of bills flow quickly between the House and Senate, some Senate bills don’t get a House public hearing.

There just isn’t time to get the Open Meetings Act 24-hour notice, hold the House standing committee meeting, and still get the Senate bill passed in the House.

In some cases, a sponsoring lawmaker can “substitute” his bill on the floor of his body, and that substitute has never had a public hearing at all.

Holding joint standing committees would do away with separate hearings in the House and Senate – and be a real boon to moving a controversial bill quickly to floor votes in both bodies.

Howe says the old rule (unknown to Sanpei and me, and I’m guessing to a lot of other legislative leaders) says that the committee CHAIRS of a House and Senate standing committee could call such a joint standing committee.

Under HJR15, only the Senate president and House speaker could call such a joint standing committee. That would allow tighter control.

 Still, holding one joint public standing committee hearing could be a vehicle to avoid two public protests on Capitol Hill.

Another part of HJR15 is equally interesting to weirdos like me:

— Any and all bills that require an appropriation of new or more money MUST go to an appropriations joint subcommittee.

Currently, leaders in the House and Senate encourage a member to take their so-called “money” bills to an appropriate budget committee. (The bill must be heard in a standing committee, both houses, as mentioned above.)

But the lawmakers don’t have to.

Now they would.

And this could be very interesting.

For the budget committee would have to approve or reject each bill funding request, or put it on a “priority” funding list – which the GOP caucuses in the House and Senate set at session’s end.

The changes in HJR15 are mostly aimed, it appears to me, to provide better hearings of important issues.

Even the “unknown” joint standing committees would have to have approval by the leaders of the House and Senate, where before standing committee chairs could call such a joint meeting — even though they never did.

You see, even old dogs can learn new tricks at the Legislature.