Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Legislators Planning On More Committee Meetings at the End of the Session

A number of legislators – especially House members – have been concerned that more than a third of all the bills passed in recent legislative sessions are voted on in the final four days before adjournment, and more often than not have not been vetted by that house’s standing committees.

In fact, some House members complain that certain senators keep one or two of their most controversial bills sitting on the Senate’s 3rd Reading calendar until, at session’s end, the House stops its standing committee public hearings.

The senator then uncircles his bill, the Senate passes it, and then it goes directly to the House floor – for an up or down vote without representatives (in a standing committee) having a chance to amend, hold or otherwise refine the measure.

Avoiding a public hearing in the other body’s committee – where vocal opponents can grab media attention — can help get a controversial bill passed, so goes the thinking of some veteran lawmakers.

Yes, amendments can be made to a Senate bill on the House floor, and vice versa. But it takes up time – and so fewer bills can be heard.

And as watchers of the Legislature know – me being one – how often in the final week does the Senate saunter (not passing or debating House bills) because the House is taking its time passing Senate bills?

It happens a lot, trust me.

So, the new House GOP leaders (with Senate leaders agreeing) are will hold House and Senate standing committees in the final week.

“It is counter intuitive to think that we are taking the best advantage of our floor time” the final week by debating and amending a Senate bill for an hour that has NOT gone to a House standing committee for review, House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, told UtahPolicy Thursday morning.

It’s Dunnigan’s official job to manage the 63-member House GOP caucus and run the floor, doing the best he can to move debate and votes forward.

While holding standing committees in both the House and Senate the final week of the session may sound like a small change, in reality it could take some real political fights off the Senate and House floor and resolve them in committee, thus saving time and tempers, resulting in a more open process – which could also end with better bills.

So the leaders hope.

Thursday, in an open House GOP caucus, the members voted unanimously to adopt a new schedule for week seven of the 45-day general session.

The Senate Republicans are expected to agree.

There will be standing committee hearings on Monday and Tuesday of the final week (lawmakers will adjourn at midnight that Thursday, March 12).

To make up for lost floor time – and to provide time for fair chamber debate – the House and Senate will hold evening sessions that Monday and Tuesday, perhaps even as late as 10 or 11 p.m.

It was freshman House members who complained over the last two years that “traditional” operations in the House were lacking – and law-making was suffering.

They especially didn’t like voting on bills the first few days of each session – saying they were expected to cast votes on measures they hadn’t seen before or fully understood.

And they were unhappy at bills being seemingly rushed through the floor the final week – especially upset when they realized that many of the Senate bills had not had a House standing committee vote or public hearing in their body.

“You (House GOP leaders) are reacting to our input,” said Rep. Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi, in complementing the revised final week schedule.

In any case, it appears legislators are in for even longer days (and nights) the final week of the 2015 Legislature – hopefully with citizens seeing the benefits of more public interaction and better legislation.