Lawmaker says eliminating ‘secret’ bills will improve transparency in the Utah Legislature

State Rep. Dan McCay says he just may have a solution to so many bills being drafted these days for the Utah Legislature to consider.

Do away with the “protected” status of bills, and “transparency will take care of this problem – as it does in general with government issues.”

As UtahPolicy has reported previously, there are around 1,000 new bill files opened – and the 2018 Legislature is still two months away.

It’s a record number of bill files.

And in an open House GOP caucus leaders have complained that one legislator has 82 bill files opened – but we don’t know who that is because of legislative internal secrecy rules.

GOP leaders in the House and Senate are looking at ways to cut down on the bill overload.

A “protected” bill is really a secret bill – no one except the staff drafting attorney and the legislator himself knows the bill file is open and that legal writing has begun.

While it is true that all bills must be filed, and numbered, by the second week of the seven-and-a-half-week general session, just knowing that a legislator is working on a bill can, at times, cause heartburn for the lawmaker.

But McCay, R-Riverton, who says he hasn’t had a protected bill since after his first general session, believes for the overall health of the 104-member, part-time Legislature, the doing away with secret bills will be a good thing.

“I haven’t seen that a protected bill is advantageous to anyone – not the stakeholders (of the issue the bill addresses), not the public,” says McCay.

“It certainly doesn’t create good process,” he adds.

The more “blindsided” stakeholders, the public and fellow lawmakers are to an upcoming controversial issue/bill, “the more problems you cause.”

While it is not today the problem it was in more recent times, there have been instances when some legislators (House members point fingers at the Senate on this one) keep a bill secret until the session’s second week..

Then, in the rush of the end of session, text in the bill’s body made public.

Late in the 45-day session the bill is rushed through its body in several days and goes over to the other house – whose members haven’t had time to digest it, or seek reaction from their constituents.

In some cases it may make passing a controversial law easier, but in general it is not seen as a good process by some legislators, stakeholders or concerned citizens.

“If people are afraid of taking “heat” by drafting in private,” said McCay, “I don’t know they are gaining anything, certainly not trust by keeping it behind the scenes” for much of the general session – or pre-session.

Basically, says McCay, his bill will just take away the protected status. When a bill file is open, it will be public – at least by a name.

“This does not do away with the boxcar process,” he said.

Boxcars are bills with a name only, maybe a short title, but with no text.

By the second week of the session, all bills must be introduced by at least short title.

But bill files opened late, just before the session starts the fourth Monday in January, fall to the back of the staff attorney drafting line, so it is to everyone’s advantage to open a bill file well before the January session starts.

Making it “protected” early means no one knows what a legislator is planning until the rush of the session takes over.

So, many secret bills are not seen for months before the session starts.

McCay says early, open, bill files would allow all to see what each legislator is working on – and then stakeholders can ask them what ideas they have concerning that bill, what issue is to be addressed.

“I have no doubt,” says McCay, that if some legislator has 82 bill files officially opened (as one non-named lawmaker reported has), if we do away with protected bills we will see a decrease in the number of bills.”

And that will lead to less wasted drafting time by staff attorneys, and maybe more responsible bill filing by lawmakers, he believes.