One lawmaker has reportedly opened 82 bill files ahead of the 2018 session

Republican leaders in the Utah House and Senate are looking at ways to cut down on the number of bills being filed each general session.

One old rule has already been abandoned:

Leaders have instructed their staff attorneys to tell lawmakers with similar “secret” bills about each other’s ideas.

That way two or 20 legislators who have opened “secret” bill files can talk to other legislators working on similar topics, and maybe duplicative work can be eliminated.

Under the long-time practice, in the Utah Legislature the 104 part-time lawmakers can open a “protected” bill (really a secret bill) and no other legislators, nor the public, knows the legislation is being drafted.

But that small change likely will do little to really cut down on the number of bills being drafted before each of the 45-day general sessions – which start the fourth Monday in January.

So far, GOP House leaders have told their 62-member caucus, around 1,000 bill files have been open, a new record.

House Majority Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, recently told his caucus members in an open meeting attended by, that “it is getting silly” how many bill files have been opened.

Solutions to this issue may be unimportant to the average Utahn, but to lobbyists and special interest groups that routinely work with the Legislature in the relatively short 45-day general session, if the bill(s) that you need end up being drafted late in the session, it’s likely they won’t get passed.

And you’ll have to wait another year to address your concerns.

Gibson said one legislator had opened 82+ bill files. Gibson acknowledged that the legislator in question is supposed to remain secret. But then he named Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Bountiful – who historically has carried some of the most bills nearly every session.

Weiler, contacted by UtahPolicy, said it was not him. “I have maybe around 30 bills going,” he said.

Because any legislator can keep secret from the public any number of the bills he’s working on, it is impossible for UtahPolicy to independently identify who has opened the 82 bill files in question.

Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, told his caucus that he uses a smart route to make sure most of his bills are at the front of the line each session to be drafted.

At 12:01 on the first day in May that new bills can be filed for next year’s general session, McCay via the web opens “around 20” so-called “boxcar” bills.

That is, he put in line around 20 bills with no text and just a general topic – like “government amendments.”

Each of the 104 lawmakers, regardless of political party, get three so-called “priority” bills. And if a legislator designates this or that bill of his as a priority, that bill goes to the front of the line in the drafting process.

But after those three “priority” bills, every other bill falls into drafting line according to the time the lawmakers opens a bill file with Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel.

Thus, McCay’s early-opened “boxcar” bills are at the front of the non-priority bill line.

McCay admitted some members might fault him for doing this – but he added that’s the current system and he’s been open about telling colleagues how best to get your bill drafting done early by staff attorneys.

“I’m transparent,” said McCay. “Mock me or follow me.”

While over recent years the Legislature and leaders have been more efficient in managing bills moving through the process, as many as half of all the bills passed each session pass in the final week of the Legislature.

And it is not uncommon for a bill to be brought up for final passage, have no or little debate, and then voted up or down (usually up).

As of last week, of the nearly 1,000 bill files opened, only 46 have been drafted and approved by their sponsoring lawmakers, with 88 still written and awaiting their sponsor’s final approval.

Less than 1/10th of the bills requested have been drafted or had significant work done on them, House leaders said.

That means it is not a backup of drafting work not being done by staff attorneys; it’s the lawmakers themselves not telling/approving of the work requested by the drafters.

The identity of the lawmaker who has opened 82 bill files?

Still unknown.

But GOP leaders say in January, before the opening of the session, in all-day caucus meetings (historically closed on the majority side), leaders will present various options to members to see how the always-increasing bill numbers can be better handled.