After a grueling legislative session, lawmakers met on Tuesday to hold an annual review of the Office of Legislative Research and General Council – the office responsible for providing information to lawmakers and drafting legislation based on lawmaker demands.
In all, the 2013 legislative session saw 1,172 bill requests, an average of just over 11 requests per legislator. Historically, it was the 3rd highest total number of requests in a session, behind the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions.
Michael Christensen, Director of the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel called these requests “the new plateau,” and noted that the office is able to fulfill lawmaker requests, but changes in lawmaker habits in submitting and prioritizing bills has his office “stretched.” Senate President Wayne Niederhauser (R – Sandy) would later rhetorically ask if this high of demand on the office had crossed the line into abusive.
Representative Jen Seelig (D – Salt Lake City) showed gratitude towards the attorneys, but was concerned the office could become a log jam of legislation. “We want to be efficient and effective with taxpayer dollars…[but] we are asking for more and giving less, and, at some point it is going to break.” Representative Tim Cosgrove (D – Murray) mirrored these concerns, asking Christensen if Legislative Research could continue at its current pace considering the new technological reality that lawmakers have greater and instantaneous contact with the office.
Christensen acknowledged that the office has done more constituent work as a direct result of legislator requests, and that this work also adds to workload.
John Fellows, General Counsel for Legislative Research, would also add an additional element to workload for the office. “Don’t underestimate the role lobbyists play in all this,” Fellows stated. “One of the big changes I have seen in my career is how many individuals are looking to please lobbyists and constituents – to the extent that we restrict the number of bills to introduce, that is where we get the pressure…and sometimes we get lobbyists themselves putting pressure on [our office] to get bills drafted.”
The under-staffed office, which is responsible for drafting all legislation throughout the year, has a very real impact on public involvement in the democratic process. Due to workload and pressure from lawmakers, they are often forced to produce incomplete bills for debate. The natural result of such practices is, as major flaws are found within a bill, lawmakers propose substitute bills that replace in part or in full, the original language of the bill after public testimony. Problematic bills often get pushed to the end of the legislative session, as solutions are created and substitutes formally introduced on the floor. Substitutes, as opposed to regular bills, only need to be available to the public for 24 hours and may or may not have an opportunity to receive public comment at a committee hearing.
Though some administrative changes could be made to ease pressure, only three long term solutions exist: increase the length of the legislative session – a move unpopular with the public, increase the budget for Legislative Research to allow for more staff – a move unpopular with small government advocates, or decrease or cap bill requests – a move unpopular with lawmakers.