Flood of Secret Bills Not Slowing Down as Legislative Session Approaches

Do you know what your Utah State House and Senate members are up to as the 2015 Legislature approaches?

Well, good luck with that.

Because if your representative or senator is operating like most of the 75-member House and 29-member Senate are, half of what they are up to is secret.

Yep. Secret.

Last week, in an open House GOP caucus (the Republican senators keep their caucus meetings closed), members were told that as of last Wednesday 692 new bill files for the 2015 Legislature had been opened by the 104 part-time lawmakers.

Of that number, 371 were “protected.”

That’s the official term for secret. Only the legislator asking the legislative attorneys assigned to draft that bill know the bill even exists, what’s its subject matter is, and what its wording will be.

So, 53.6 percent of all the bills now being drafted for the 2015 Legislature are secret.

The public doesn’t know about them.

Now, to be fair, as those bills are officially introduced they must be made public.

And, of course, the bills are public as they are debated in the House and Senate, and if passed sent to the governor for his approval or veto.

Two weeks into the 45-day general session comes a bill-filing deadline. By that day, all bills must be made public, formally filed and given a number.

So you would think that come early February (the session starts Jan. 26) you would know all of the bills to be considered over the next month.

But you’d be wrong.

Some bills – varies from one year to the next – are properly filed. But they have only a number and a short title. There is no text to the bills.

The title may be something specific, like: “Amendments to the State Rock Designation.”

More often the short titles are vague, like: “Changes to State Tax Code.”

The later could be a tax hike, or a tax cut.

I’ve even seen short titles that say: “Changes to State Government.”

These no-text bills are called “boxcars” – for they are empty structures that can be filled up with anything later in the session.

Used to be that only GOP and Democratic leaders filed boxcar bills – which could be used to introduce important legislation late in the session without having to get the rule-required 2/3rds vote of either the House or Senate to introduce a bill after the bill-filing deadline.

Majority GOP lawmakers usually can get their body’s colleagues to agree to a late filing, but woe are Democrats who try to open a bill file after the deadline.

However, over the last decade more and more rank-and-file members have been filing boxcars.

Some members have good reasons. Others, I’m guessing, like to play with media reporters’ and other observers’ minds.

Nothing like getting some attention if you file a boxcar at the deadline with a short title like: “Amendments to GRAMA,” or “Changes to the Elections of White People.”

Mischief can be played with boxcars, and often is.

Take, for example, the 2011 HB477 – a boxcar bill that was changed the Wednesday before adjournment, text dropped in, hearings and votes held in the House and Senate and – AMAZING! – 72 hours later controversial changes were made to the open meetings law to further protect from disclosure legislative emails and other documents.

Huge uproar. Salt Lake Tribune ran a front-page editorial calling GOP Gov. Gary Herbert a political hack. Embarrassment ensued, a special session called and HB477 was repealed.

All because of the Legislature’s internal rules that allow for secret bill drafting, boxcars and late-session antics.

Now, some legislators, like Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, say they keep ALL of their bills public, from the day they open a bill file with the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel.

Other legislators, I know, keep most if not all of their bills “protected” until they are about ready to formally introduce and number them.

So, if you really want to freak out your House or Senate member, give them a call or email them and ask them how many secret bills they are working on over the Christmas holidays, and just when are they going to tell the public – which elected them and pay their admittedly small salaries – what they are up to.

And keep reading UtahPolicy.

It’s our job to look at the newly-filed bills each day of the session. And hopefully we’ll do that job and try to keep you advised of any HB477s as they come.