Lawmakers have already opened nearly 1,000 bill files ahead of the 2018 session

Well, here we go again.

As of last week, Utah’s 104 part-time lawmakers had opened 940 bill files – possible legislation to be introduced in the 2018 upcoming Legislature.

It’s a new record – leaving leaders, once again, wondering how to manage such a large flow of new bills.

Utah has one of the shortest general sessions among the 50 states – just 45 calendar days.

Lawmakers don’t legislate or hold bill hearings on Saturdays and Sundays, so as far as passing bills goes there are really only 35 working days.

In the 2017 session, 815 bills and resolutions ended up actually being introduced, with 535 passing into law. (GOP Gov. Gary Herbert vetoes just a handful after each session.)

Now, all the bill files opened with Legislative Research and General Counsel won’t actually be written or introduced. Many are abandoned by their sponsor somewhere along the line.

But usually all bill files do have some work done on them – taking up time of the two dozen or so staff drafting attorneys.

Some bills are short, just changing a few words, lines or tax rates.

Others are huge bills, hundreds of pages, making large changes in state regulations, criminal processes and such.

In a recent House GOP caucus, leaders read out some of the bill request numbers – adding their own comments.

For example, House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said one lawmaker has opened 81 bill files, another 25.

“They are out of their ever-loving minds,” he added.

He didn’t say which legislators these were.

And that’s because under current internal legislative rules, lawmakers can open a bill file, have it drafted, and not tell anyone besides the drafting attorney who he or she is or what the bill is about.

These are secret bills.

Or, as the public-relations-conscience Legislature puts it, “protected bills.”

The second week of every general session is a deadline for introducing bills. By that date, every bill is supposed to be numbered and have at least a short title.

But for many of these last-minute bills there is no text to the bill – leaving citizens, lobbyists, media reporters, and even other lawmakers, often wondering exactly what the bill sponsor is intending.

Of course, a bill must have a full text and fiscal note before it can be voted on in a hearing committee or on the floor.

Still, that doesn’t stop some big surprise bills from hitting the House and Senate in the final days of each session.

But back to the record-setting 940 bill files opened as of Nov. 1.

A count of the current “public” bills listed on the Legislature’s website shows just 373 bills.

That means 60 percent of the bill files now being drafted are secret – the public doesn’t know what they are.

Various attempts over the years to change internal rules to require all bills to be public from the time a lawmaker opens a drafting bill file have all failed.

Not only is this a flaw in public transparency, government reform groups argue, it can be time-wasting for staff.

Under the rules, two, three or 10 lawmakers could all be drafting secret bills on the same or adjourning topics, and they don’t know each other are doing so – only the drafting attorney does.

So duplicative efforts are going on at the same time.

In a recent open House GOP caucus, leaders told their members to get with it – for the staff will have little time to draft all these bills in the remaining 11 weeks before the session starts.

Under internal rules, each lawmaker can have three “prioritized” bills – bills that go to the top of the drafting line.

But out of the 940 bill files open, only around 30 have been prioritized by lawmakers so far, leaders said.

Most of the 940 bill files have had little or no work done on them, leaders said, because the lawmakers haven’t told the drafting attorney what they want in the bill.

While the Legislature has given itself new monies over the last few years to hire more staff, they are still working harder than ever before.

“They have never seen a workload as they have this year,” said Wilson.

The 2018 general session starts Jan. 22. It ends midnight March 8.