Lawmakers Look to Tweak Legislative Process

Not that many will pass, or if they do they will be followed, but reform-mined legislators from both political parties are introducing a number of bills this session aimed at making the process of the Legislature better.


You can read a many of those bills here and here.

One of the main complaints made by freshman and veteran House members last general session was that bills are getting final votes without having a public hearing in one of the bodies.

In fact, the Legislative Process Committee (rejuvenated last interim) found that nearly one-third of all bills passed in recent sessions did NOT get a hearing in the non-sponsoring body.

Let’s say a bill was sponsored by a senator. It would get a hearing in that body’s standing committee, come to the floor calendar and finally get approved.

But for some reason (and many believe that reason is a political tactic, not really a viable excuse) the bill never goes before a House standing committee or public hearing in that body.

Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley, has HB216. It says that no bill may be finally approved without getting a standing committee hearing in both bodies, and getting a favorable recommendation from both those standing committees.

(This is another anomaly, in rare cases a bill is held in a standing committee, only to be pulled from that body’s Rules Committee later and put up on the board for a vote. The standing committee may have heard the bill, but never gave it a positive recommendation.)

If all this sounds like inside baseball, it is.

But how the Legislature operates (or doesn’t, at times) can have great effects on the bills and budget policies ultimately adopted on behalf of the people of Utah.

Several GOP senators were accused, mostly behind the scenes, since House members don’t want to anger powerful members of the “upper chamber,” last session of holding controversial bills on the Senate 3rd Reading Calendar.

Then after the House stopped holding standing committees toward the end of the session, final votes are taken in the Senate and the bill doesn’t get a standing committee hearing in the House.

Oft times, UtahPolicy is told, lobbyists either are not paying attention when a bill they are interested in passes the sponsoring house; or they don’t want to take on a powerful senator, believing they will work to kill or amend the bill in the House standing committee; or a public interest group doesn’t pick up on a bill until late in the session.

In any case, a bill sponsor is much more likely to get a hard time in the opposing body’s standing committee hearing. Amendments may be made to his bill the sponsor doesn’t like, or the bill may be held in the other body’s committee.

On a personal, and perhaps petty, level, a senator may not like kowtowing in front of a House committee, manned by his political inferiors. (Senators represent three times the number of constituents than a representative does.)

So, it’s a political tactic to try to avoid the other body’s standing committee all together.

Thus comes Hall’s HB216.

Of course, the catch all to any internal rule is that legislators can suspend any rule at any time.

That’s one reason Hall’s bill changes state law as it applies to the passage of bills. It is not a rule, which could be suspended.

But with such strictness comes inflexibility – or at least the flexibility of passing a new law at the last minute, and suspending any rules needed to do so – that accompanies a law.

Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, has HR1. That says the House can’t approve a bill that has not had a House standing committee.

HR1 applies only to the House. It, like HB216, would stop a bill from passing the House without a committee hearing with a favorable recommendation vote of committee members.

But HR1 is a rule, and could be suspended by a vote of the House as a whole at any time.

Finally (and this is a pet peeve of mine) SJR11 by Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, would take the Legislature back to the good old days as regards the numbering of bills.

In recent years the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel has followed a really weird bill numbering process – one that makes sense only after a lengthy explanation by the top office attorney, John Fellows.

I won’t try to explain the numbering process here (partly because I still don’t understand it.)

In any case, Valentine has been in the Legislature so long that he actually remembers when bills were numbered sequentially as they were formally introduced.

Thus, if your bill is the 247th to be introduced in the House in a general session, it would be HB247.

The exception in SJR11 is that major budget bills would keep their long-held positions – the main public education budget bill would be HB1, regardless of when it is officially numbered and introduced.

And bills approved by an interim committee would follow the budget bills in numerical order as they are approved by an interim committee.

Valentine said it is the general perception that the lower number a bill has, the more work has gone into the bill – and thus perhaps a better chance of passage.

Bill drafting attorneys have noticed that many legislators – I won’t call them lazy – don’t approve a bill for numbering when that bill is finished by the drafting attorney.

In fact, some lawmakers wait until the session has begun to get around to giving final approval – and then the bill can be numbered – even if the drafting attorney finished the bill back in September.

“We’re giving you an incentive,” said Valentine to fellow legislators — approve your bills when they are finished being written. They will get a lower number, the attorneys can get the dang thing off their desks and the public can see the bill sooner.

It’s my job is to watch the new bills as they are introduced. In recent Legislatures it has become more and more difficult to track new bills – as, for various reasons, a new bill may be numbered in the 100s, or 300s or even the 400s.

(Fellows says there are actually reasons for this, but, again, those reasons are beyond my understanding.)

At the start of this 2014 session, Senate tech wizards set up a new file page which shows the new bills introduced each day, regardless of the number they receive.

Bills are listed in various files on the Legislature’s web site – by number, by subject matter, by sponsor, with links between those pages.

The Utah Legislature has won awards from good government groups on its web sites and transparency.

Valentine’s rule change would help old reporters, legislative newbies and the public in general follow what the heck is going on in what can be the very confusing process of adopting new laws and the annual billion-dollar budget.

SJR11 passed the Senate’s 2nd Reading Calendar on Tuesday and will be up for a final vote on Thursday. It then goes to the House (where it will likely get a public hearing).