House Republicans stifle proposal allowing legislators to add intent language to their bills

Utah Capitol 22

The House Rules Committee on Tuesday held a proposed rule that would allow legislators to write up a summary on each of their bills, telling the public and press what they want that bill to achieve – even if what they said may not be the whole truth.

Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, has HJR6, which would allow, at their own choice, the sponsor of each bill or resolution to write up to a 500-word summary of what their legislation would do.

And that summary would be listed on the bill’s homepage on the Legislature’s website.

Thurston – and two members of the public who testified in support – said that many pieces of legislation are complicated, strike out language here, add stuff there, and it is nearly impossible to tell what the heck will happen if the bill passes.

Current bill summaries of one or two sentences put at the top of bills by the drafting attorneys don’t come close to actually saying what the goal of the bill is – and Thurston said he’s been working on the new rule since last May trying to reach the right language.

But Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, an attorney, said any such summary written by a sponsor, even if it says on the document it is NOT part of the legislation, will, in fact, be brought up in any court challenge.

And so the summary, “or intent language,” could harm a new law’s legal standing in a court case.

“I can tell you 100 percent it will be used in court,” said McKell.

Thurston disagrees, saying that each summary language would include instructions that the summary was not part of the bill and shouldn’t be used in court. “It wouldn’t be any different than if the sponsor issued a press release saying” what he wanted to accomplish with his bill, said Thurston.

But Thurston did admit that there could, also, be no truth, or accuracy, test to the summary – that the media, or opponents of the bill, or fellow legislators’ comments would have to act as boundaries for what the legislator himself wrote about what his bill would do.

McKell said that various court hearings about the controversial SB54 had attorneys going back into verbal comments made at committee hearings on the bill, trying to prove the “real” intent of the legislation – which some archconservative GOP leaders say was to harm the Utah Republican Party’s right to pick their own nominees in convention.

Coincidentally, State Republican Party Central Committee member Phill Wright – who has become the face of the party’s bankrupting SB54 court battle, testified in favor of Thurston’s rule change.

Saying he was appearing just representing himself, Wright said some complicated bills are confusing, and that what is said about them by others could be deceptive – so the sponsor’s own summary statement would be helpful to folks wanting to understand what it does.

“It is important to me to know (the sponsor’s) original intent,” Wright said.

A representative of the Utah Eagle Forum, a conservative, traditional family-value lobbying group, said she tries to read every bill introduced, only to find many bills so technical – especially insurance bills – that she can’t understand what they would do, and so can’t advise her membership whether they should support or oppose the bill.

But it appeared most Rules Committee members were having problems with Thurston’s proposed rule change. And so Republicans on the committee voted to adjourn rather than vote on it.

Most of the time the Rules Committees in the House and Senate act as sifting committees, holding or advancing bills to standing committees for public hearings.

But Rules also acts once or twice a session as a standing hearing committee when considering a proposed rule change.

It is unclear whether House Rules will meet again as a standing committee to hear proposed rules changes, and if it doesn’t Thurston’s HJR6 is probably dead. However, Rules could meet again as a standing committee and vote on the summary authorization, if GOP House leaders wish.

House sources told UtahPolicy after the meeting that some Republicans see HJR6 – whether intended by Thurston or not – as a vehicle for some archconservatives to introduce legislation, knowing it may not pass, but with sponsor summary intent language that could later be used either in court cases or public relations efforts to fight against other laws – thus the reluctance to approve the rule change at this time.

As an example, if Thurston’s summary rule passed this session, a bill aimed at repealing SB54 could contain sponsor statements aimed at influencing the current court fight against the candidate dual-pathway law, now before the U.S. Supreme Court.