‘Secret’ bills abound on Utah’s Capitol Hill ahead of 2020 session


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So, officially who is the most secretive Utah state legislator? At least as bill introductions are concerned.

(How’s that for a teaser story opening?)

Utah is one of the few states that allows a legislator to open a “secret” bill file, work on that bill, draft it, all without the public knowing about the bill.

Until now it has been almost impossible to determine which lawmakers are drafting the most “secret” bills, something inquiring reporters may want to know, if not the voting public.

We also didn’t know how prevalent the practice of “secret” bill drafting has been. But now we know that also.

And the numbers are considerable: Nearly one-half of the bill files opened by the 75 members of the House are “secret,” we don’t know before the session starts what they are.

And around 25 percent of the bills being worked on now by the 29 senators are, also, “secret.”

It is true, early in each 45-day general session — the 2020 session starts Jan. 27 — each of Utah’s 104 part-time lawmakers must make at least the short title of all their bills public, with most formally introducing their bills and resolutions and have them numbered, ready for public hearings in specialized committees.

And before bills are heard in committee or debated on the floor (and votes are taken), all bills are public and can easily be read by the citizens on the Legislature’s award-winning and very transparent website.

But legislators could kill a bill before that deadline, and even if quite a lot of staff work has been done on it, no one knows about the bill or what the legislator was thinking of trying to do — if he or she never actually introduced the bill.

Once numbered, you can read the whole bill and see what each legislator wants passed during the session.

But, and this is a big but, for months a legislator can secretly be having a legislative attorney researching and drafting a proposed law or resolution, with no one other than the attorney knowing what the legislator is working on.

And until all the bills are “filed” by that early-session deadline, we the public and press don’t know about any of the “secret” bills (the official name is “protected,” sounds better, doesn’t it?)

Well, now inquisitive people can figure out for themselves (by working between public legislative bill lists), who is working on the most “secret” bills.

We don’t know what those bills are, either by subject or theme. But we can see who is working on the most such bills.

And this year’s winner is:

— Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton.

According to the official list of who has opened the most bill files (as of the Jan. 14 for this story), McCay has opened 24 bill or resolution files. Another bill listing page, this one by named legislator, has McCay with only one public bill, either numbered or by drafting subject. Subtract the two numbers — total bill files open (24) to listed public bill files (1) and you get McCay working on 23 “secret” bills — the most of any legislator.

We don’t know what those bills are unless McCay at a later date decides to tell us by formally filing the bills (either by number or by short title) later in the 45-day session.

Even after the official bill filing deadline hits, McCay and the other legislators, can just list a bill by short title, giving us some idea what the subject would be, if the lawmaker finally introduces the written bill by number.

But sometimes that short title is something like, “tax amendments,” or “women’s health,” and we don’t know that really the lawmaker wanted to raised income taxes or try another abortion ban — if the bill is never formally introduced with text and numbered.

Here are the other top “secret” bill file lawmakers — who each have at least 10 “secret” bills:

— Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, has 25 bill files opened, but only four listed by subject or numbered, meaning he’s working on 21 “secret” bills — we don’t know what they are.

— Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley, has 23 bill files opened, yet only nine are public, so she’s working on 14 “secret” bills.

— Senate Assistant Minority Whip Jani Iwamoto, D-Salt Lake City, has 25 bill files opened, only 11 public, so she, also, has 14 “secret” bills.

— While Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, has 21 bill files opened, only 10 public listed by subject or numbered, with 11 “secret” bills.

There are 29 senators, who in total have 106 “secret” bills out of 410 total bill files opened, now with just over a week to go before the 2020 Legislature convenes.

That means just over 25 percent, or one-fourth, of all the bills state senators are working on are “secret” — we don’t know what they are.

The House has 75 members, and so historically fewer bills per representative are filed on average.

This is seen by the number of “secret” bills, also.

— Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, has the honor (if you can call it that) of having the most “secret” bills — 18. Eliason has 25 bill files open, with only seven publicly listed.

— Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, has 16 “secret” bills; 14 opened and only two listed publicly.

— Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, has 16 bill files opened, four listed publicly by subject/number, or 12 “secret” bills.

— Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Salem, also has 12 “secret” bills, 25 bill files opened and 13 listed publicly.

— Rep. Jeffery Stenquist, R-Draper, has 11 “secret” pieces of legislation he’s working on, 15 bill files opened but only four public.

The 75-member House, with its larger numbers, has 690 bill files opened so far, but 324 are “secret.”

That means that 46.9 percent of all the bills being worked on by House members are “secret,” we don’t know now what they are.

And the minority Democrats aren’t much better in this area than the majority Republicans, even though Democrats often complain that the majority party makes “secret” decisions in closed caucuses.

By UtahPolicy.com figuring, “secret” bills are clearly used by members of both parties.

Now, someone may ask: “How do lawmakers order that one of their bills is secret; maybe they just overlooked something and by accident their bill is secret?”

Nope, UtahPolicy.com is told that a legislator has to make an affirmative action to make a bill secret — they have to check a box on the open-bill-file form online or tell the drafting attorney to keep the bill secret. There’s really no error in making a bill secret.

Finally, who are those who could be honored as the most open lawmakers — they have no or few “secret” bills.

Here are those folks with no “secret” bills (all their bill files opened are also publicly listed:

The Senate:

— Sen. Dan Buxton, R-Roy, 1 bill file opened, 1 listed publicly; Sen. Keith Grover, R-Provo; 2 files open, 2 listed; Sen. Dan Thatcher, R-West Valley, 12 files open, 12 listed publicly.

The House:

— Rep. Scott Chew, R-Jensen; 1 file opened, 1 listed; Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, 21 files opened, 21 listed publicly; Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Salt Lake City; 1 file opened, one listed; Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, 16 files opened, 16 listed publicly; Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, 5 files opened, 5 listed; House Minority Assistant Whip Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, 8 files opened, 8 listed; Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, 16 files opened, 16 listed publicly.

Some also made a great effort in publicly listing most of the bills they are working on:

— Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi; with 38 bill files opened (the most of any legislator), and 37 publicly listed, only one “secret” bill.

And some kind of special award must be given to Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo. The official lists of bill files on the Legislature’s website shows Bramble with 17 bill files opened, but 18 bills made public — or according to the files, he has made public one more bill than he has even opened.