How Should We Rank the Performance of Utah Lawmakers?

Are you a “good” or a “bad” legislator?

Ahh, if only it were that simple.


But more than half a dozen groups/individuals believe they have the answer to that question.

You see, after every Utah legislative general session there are a number of groups that rank lawmakers by the votes they make on bills picked out as important by those groups.

Usually, such analysis is done by special interest groups – and the 104 part-time lawmakers are ranked by how conservative they are, how they fight tax hikes, how they support public education, and such.

Adam Brown, a very active Brigham Young University political science professor, also does any number of legislative rankings. And recently he put forward his “voting power ranking.”

Don’t ask me how he does this – Brown explains his methodology at the top of the rankings, but it is all beyond me. You can see his power rankings here.

His are one of the few rankings that isn’t ideologically-based (although he also does some of these, as well.)

One of the oldest rankings is done by GrassRoots, an archconservative group that has been watching how lawmakers vote on certain bills/resolutions over the years.

The Utah Taxpayer Association – a pro-business nonprofit – does rankings based on how legislators vote on taxation/pro-business measures.

Here is Utah GrassRoots’ ranking for the 2014 general session which ended in mid-March.

The Utah Taxpayers Association 2014 legislative scorecard is here. has a compilation of several rankings, including the Utah Education Association. You can see this here.

The Salt Lake Tribune’s Lee Davidson continues an evaluation started by me and former Deseret News reporter Jerry Spangler way back when we both worked for the News and covered the Legislature – a comparison of how many bills each lawmaker introduces and how many bills he passed.

You can see that comparison here.

What do all of these rankings really mean?

Well, they are one measure of a legislator’s work during the 45-day general session.

If a lawmaker is a conservative tax-fighter, he will love being on the top of the UTA’s list.

If he votes regularly in favor of public education, then he’ll like the UEA’s rankings.

In many cases, in an election year the incumbent is often attacked for his showing in one or more of these rankings.

Or, if he is proud of his designation, he’ll use it in his campaign.

I recall years ago when one of the strongest critics of the News’ “most effective legislator” rankings was Rep. Patrice Arent – who continued her opposition to the newspaper’s rankings when she went to the Senate.

(Arent is now back in the House representing a different district than in her previous elections.)

Arent, even though a Democrat, regularly had one of the highest DN rankings – she passed a large percent of the bills she introduced.

Her main complaint was that because the Utah House and Senate were overwhelmingly Republican, no Democrat could do very well.

But she always did.

And Arent often used the DN’s ranking of her in re-election material.

In fact, a number of lawmakers who did well in the newspaper’s rankings printed their showing on their campaign material.

The taxpayers association names one or two lawmakers each year as their “lawmaker of the year,” giving them an award for fighting against tax hikes and for business development.

You can bet those folks use that honor in their re-election campaigning, as well.

If you are a Republican incumbent, and you do poorly in the GrassRoots ranking, if you are challenged from the right in your own party next time around your opponent will often point out that you are not conservative enough.

For example, Blake Cozzens, who is in a GOP primary against Rep. John Westwood, R-Cedar City, in Iron County’s House District 72, is slapping Westwood for his GrassRoots 2014 ranking of 33 percent – meaning Westwood voted as GrassRoots thought he should only a third of time on the dozens of bills/votes the archconservative group believed important in the last session.

That’s a low ranking for a GOP incumbent, although in the 61-member House Republican caucus 11 other Republicans got a lower ranking by GrassRoots than did Westwood.

In theory, these various groups (Brown’s work is an exception) send out an email or letter to lawmakers early in each session warning them they are being watched on specifically-listed bills.

But how often legislators pay attention to such things is unknown.

Especially in the final week of each session – where between half to a third of all bills are voted on – it gets so crazy it would be hard for a legislator to even know how this or that group wants them to vote.

Of course, if it comes up in debate that the UEA – the main teacher union in the state – favors a bill, then you can bet a number of GOP lawmakers will be saying: “Nope, I’m not for that one.”

And if it’s known that GrassRoots wants lawmakers to vote “no” on a bill, many Democrats would naturally find themselves supporting it.

Finally, while you may not know it at the time of many of these votes, if at the end of the session you are a Republican, seeking re-election, you wouldn’t welcome getting a 30 percent approval ranking from GrassRoots, or vice versa if you were a Democrat and ranked low on the UEA session analysis.

There is one notable exception to all of this:

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, is the president of the Utah Taxpayers Association. I’ve noticed over the years that Stephenson doesn’t rank at the top of the UTA list, but really close to the top.

Certainly Stephenson knows how his association (a special group of UTA members decide the “right” votes on a number of bills in their ranking) wants him to vote. And he usually votes “wrong” on a few bills each session.

A political independent? Or a savvy politician who doesn’t want to appear to be beholding to the association that employs him?

In some incumbent re-elections, and in some campaign fund raising, these various rankings may have an impact.

Mostly lawmakers find them irritable, unless they decide to use that ranking as a positive in their re-election efforts.