Utah Senate Tenure Getting Shorter

Utah’s Senate Chamber

The Utah Senate has long been considered the “wise, old” body of the state Legislature.

One may argue the “wise” part of that statement.


But “old” meant not only age – a number of grey hairs in the 29-member body, and there would be more if not for dyeing hair color by a few members – but also time of service in the Senate.

With the soon-to-be resignation of Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, to take on the chairmanship of the Utah Tax Commission, UtahPolicy decided to look at the “old” part of the institution – as in number of years senators have served in the upper body.

And when one does that, suddenly the Senate is not as veteran as one may believe.

In fact, when all 29 senators’ tenure is considered, the average length of service is just short of eight years – 7.9 years on average.

But if a few long-time senators are removed from the calculation – for their tenure warps the average – then by far the great majority of senators have served, on average, just five years in the Senate.

That, dear readers, is not a lot of time, nor experience, in lawmaking in the upper body.

Now, a few of those “short-timers” served in the 75-member House before moving up to the Senate.

So they were not rookies their first year in the smaller body.

Still, when one considers the power of the Utah Senate, it is interesting there are so many “newbies” in the body.

It is well known on Capitol Hill that if you want to kill a bill, you spend your time and money (via campaign contributions) in the Senate.

At 29 members, Utah’s Senate is one of the smallest upper legislative bodies among the 50 states.

It takes just 15 votes to pass or kill a bill or resolution.

So for professional lobbyists and special interest groups, the best place to exercise political power is in the Senate, rather than the 75-member Utah House, where it takes 38 votes to pass or kill a bill.

While there have always been freshmen and women coming into the Senate after each election – or through appointment via a death or resignation – rarely has the Utah Senate been so inexperienced as now.

As we enter the 2014 elections, seven senators have two years or less experience: Sens. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross; Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake; Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville; Deirdre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork; Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan; Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights; and Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City.

Another four have only four years experience – as they finish their first term in the Senate: Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton; Stuart Reid, R-Ogden; Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton; and Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley.

Those will eight or six years experience include: Sens. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem; David Hinkins, R-Orangeville; Pat Jones, D-Holladay; Karen Mayne, D-West Valley; Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy; Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe; Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake; Steve Urquhart, R-St. George and Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal.

From the above lists, Harper, Vickers, Adams, Jones and Urquhart all served some time in the Utah House.

Valentine also served in the House, and when combined with his Senate service he has 26 years in the Legislature.

When he leaves in September for his new job, a replacement will be appointed by his Senate District 14 GOP delegates and Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.

But even if the delegates/governor select one of the current or former GOP House members who live in Senate District 14, those folks only have two years each experience in the House.

The four current representatives inside of Senate District 14 are all freshmen, elected just two years ago.

So 26 years will be replaced by 0 experience (if a non-legislator is chosen) or just two years experience in lawmaking and budget-setting.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, is the longest serving lawmaker in either body at a combined 30 years.

Hillyard says he and other old-timers and current leaders recognize the “holes” in some of the members’ experiences.

Having a rather junior Senate membership “really puts pressure on those of us who have some institutional memory to pass it along.”

For example, over time the same issues come up. And if you try to solve them the same way you did before – and it failed – you simply make the same mistakes over again, said Hillyard.

“The real problem comes in leadership,” said Hillyard, a former Senate president and current Senate budget chairman.

“Where to do we fill the holes we have” in committee assignments and in special knowledge? He asks.

“Just two examples: Retirement and health care.” Those are specific areas that, most likely, new senators, or even senators with a few years in office, don’t have expertise in. “So we are looking for (senators) to take those areas on.”

Valentine used to put the state budgets together as an Executive Appropriations Committee leader, noted Hillyard.

“If I left, and with John leaving, who would do that” overall budget work in the Senate? Hillyard asks.

“Experience really is very important. We’re trying to find the right niches for each senator” and match those with their own desires of service.

There is always turn over in the 104-member, part-time Utah Legislature. And that is a good thing, most would agree.

But the question remains, with a relatively inexperienced lawmaking body, who is making the laws?

The veteran lawmakers among the newbies?

Lobbyists and special interest groups, who can bring considerable pressure to bear?

Back when the Utah Senate was filled with veteran lawmakers, the question was sometimes asked: Does the Senate, with its traditions and formality and “old boys club mentality,” make the senator?

Or does the senator (and his colleagues) make the Senate?

Assuming all the senators seeking re-election this year win, considering the voluntary retirements (including Valentine’s seat), there will be three new senators after the November elections.

And the average years of experience in the Senate will go down a little bit more.