Lawmakers have already opened more than 900 bill files ahead of the 2020 Utah Legislature


Utah Capitol 05

Well, here we go again.

Utah’s 104 part-time legislators have opened around 900 bill files in preparation for the 2020 general session, which starts Jan. 27, Utah House leaders said Wednesday.

That is the second-highest number of official bill requests at this time before any general session, House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, told his Republican caucus.

One member of the House Republicans, sitting in the open caucus, “has 50 bill files open,” Gibson said, not naming the offender.

“Please stop it!” yelled one Republican to the unnamed colleague.

The Utah Legislature has a rather interesting bill file system: When a lawmaker calls up Legislative Research and General Counsel to start the bill drafting process, the lawmaker can keep the request secret — the bill file isn’t publicly recorded — or he or she can tell the drafting attorney to put the file’s short title — it’s subject matter — up on the Legislature’s website.

The 50-bill House member clearly is keeping most of his or her bill files secret — a check by of the public bill files doesn’t find any House Republican with anywhere near that many open files listed.

A handful of legislators, by personal preference, list publicly all of the bill files they open.

But we don’t know who they may be unless the legislator openly admits it since there is no public accounting of that on the website.

The highest number of public bill files belongs to Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi. He has 30 files opened.

As Gibson noted, there’s no way all 900 bill files will result in an actual bill being written. And even many of the introduced and numbered bills — around 600 each session — never get an official hearing in a House or Senate standing committee, or may not even be sent out by the individual bodies’ Rules Committees.

But every “bill file opened requires some work” by the drafting attorneys, and takes up valuable staff time, said Gibson.

Over the last decade, House and Senate leaders have discussed with their caucuses possible ways of forcing down the number of bill files opened, or bills actually introduced each 45-day general session.

Utah has one of the shortest sessions among the 50 states.

And legislators and their staffs are overworked as it is from January, February and early March, when the session ends at midnight of the 45th day.

But nothing has ever really been done.

By rule, each legislator gets three or so “priority” bills, and staff attorneys have to draft those bills first. After those, bills are drafted according to when the file was first opened, with the earlier bills getting preference.

Some of the more veteran legislators will open new bill files when the bill-drafting deadline passes each April, perhaps keeping many of them secret.

And some of the craftier lawmakers also keep controversial bills “secret.”

Early in each session, lawmakers must officially release their bills, although they may only be listed by short title until they are finally finished and introduced.

But even if a legislator had a massive policy change — like doing away with the state income tax entirely and shifting all that tax weight over to property tax — you could probably get your drafting attorney to list the short title as “tax amendments,” so other lawmakers, or media reporters, or the public, really wouldn’t know what you had up your legislative sleeve until the bill was introduced, and the text make public — which could be late in the session.