Just about everyone would agree that the 535 members of the U.S. Congress don’t work very hard, or even if they do, have little to show for it.
But now the question must be asked: Are the 104 part-time Utah legislators working too hard, or at least trying to do so?
The Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel reports that to date this year, more bills files have been opened than ever before.
“More than last year at the same time; and that was a lot,” House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, recently told his 61-member GOP caucus.
As of Sept. 22, 423 bill files have been opened in the office by siting lawmakers.
As of the same date last year, 395 bill files had been opened. (Thanks to OLRGC’s Nancy Ellison for digging up those numbers for UtahPolicy.)
Overall, in the 2014 Legislature 784 bills and resolutions were ultimately introduced, and 486 were passed. While not a record, those totals continue a general trend of more bills being introduced, and more bills passed, session after session.
Utah legislators have studied this concern – some may call it a problem – before, most recently during the 2013 interim.
No great decisions were made.
The Legislature’s attorneys say it’s likely no rule or law could be past limiting the number of bills a legislator may file and sponsor – it would be akin to restricting his political freedom of speech, or at least an illegal attempt to keep him from doing his job.
You may recall that leaders decided last session to put aside the first two weeks of the seven-and-a-half-week general session for budget work only.
Accordingly, budget subcommittees met those first two weeks of the 2014 general session, but House and Senate standing committees – where bills are heard – did not.
So, fewer bills were heard in committees, fewer bills were voted on the House and Senate floors, as the 45-day session progressed.
The result was more than half of all the bills passed in the 2014 session passed the final two weeks of the session – with some members (often Democrats) complaining that lawmakers didn’t fully understand the new laws they were voting on.
Recognizing that problem (too many bills passing in too short a time), Dee said leaders have decided to hold some standing committees during the first two weeks of the 2015 Legislature – while still dedicating the lion’s share of time for budget committee work.
“You can file as many bills as you like,” Dee warned his House GOP caucus.
“Understand it is hard to ride herd on 15 or 20 bills; it’s not fun to do.”
As usual, each legislator will have three “priority” bills – they pick them themselves. And those three bills will get priority over non-priority bills in the drafting process.
(The Legislature approved an additional staff attorney in their 2014 budget to help handle the extra bill workload, which has been building for several years.)
“We hope to move bills through (the 2015 Legislature) quicker and earlier,” said Dee.
“So it won’t be as cumbersome at the end.”
Some legislators, like Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber, complain that the Utah Legislature should do away with so-called “protected” bills.
These are really secret bills. And when a legislator calls up “legis research” – as it is known on the Hill – to open a new bill file, the attorney asks if the bill is to be openly listed under his or her name.
If they say “no,” then only the attorney and the lawmaker know of the bill’s existence.
If five lawmakers ask for a bill to be drafted on the same subject, the attorney can’t tell the other four legislators about the other drafting work – so there is duplication and secrecy until one or all the bills are made public when they are numbered and filed in the appropriate house.
This has led to some big surprises, like HB477 of several years ago – a bill that was rushed through the hearing and voting process at the end of the session.
The so-called “GRAMA reform” measure was recalled by Gov. Gary Herbert, revised, and even after it was passed and signed, Herbert called a special session to repeal it. A big political mess and an embarrassment all around.
However, most lawmakers stand by the “protected” bill process, saying it allows them to form ideas, explore alternatives, without being hounded by the media, lobbyists or citizens concerned with their early bill ideas.
Finally, the Office of Legislative Fiscal Analyst is implementing a new, online process whereby sponsoring lawmakers can approve, hold or question the fiscal notes placed on all numbered bills.
A fiscal note is the estimated cost, to the state budget, if a new law or direct appropriation is passed by lawmakers and signed by the governor.
The new process is pretty slick, with legislators getting an email when the note is ready to be placed on his or her bill.
No bill can pass without a fiscal note.
However, that doesn’t mean political games aren’t played with them.
One example: It will still be possible for a bill sponsor to get an original note on his bill, but then amend/substitute the bill with a different version.
In standing committee, the old (and now inaccurate) note can stand and the amended/substituted bill be approved.
Before final vote in the House or Senate, a new fiscal note must be updated and made public, but some legislators and others have complained that the sponsor could have made public the new note in the committee vote, but declined to do so – thus, at least for a while, fooling the public and other legislators as to the bill’s real fiscal impact.