The Legislative Process Committee had an eye toward the future Monday as they debated the role technology should play in the “under-the-hood” activities of the legislature.
While discussing one aspect of a more wired legislature, electronic voting in the Senate, Rep. Mel Brown (R – Coalville) asked, “Is it the intention to speed things up or slow them down and deliberate?” The smaller chamber currently uses a manual roll call vote for its 29 members. The House chamber, on the other hand, electronically counts the votes of its 75 members.
The idea, if it were to be adopted, could radically speed up the legislative process and volume of bills the chamber could address over the course of a session, as each vote count usually takes 45 to 90 seconds and must be counted twice for each bill. The House takes roughly the same amount of time to vote on any particular bill, although it has two and a half times as many members. During the most recent legislative session, which spanned 45 days, more than 500 bills passed through Senate and many more died on the floor – meaning that an estimated 15 to 28 hours of Senate time was spent on votes alone. If such rules were to go into effect, 6 to 11 hours of additional debate time could be freed up in the Senate.
Electronic participation and voting during committee hearings was also a topic of some debate. Currently, some lawmakers have been forced to miss committee hearings due to health, distance, or scheduling conflicts but have been able to participate (but not vote) due to modern communications. Members wrestled with how to draft rules that would allow for remote participation while avoiding abuse of the service by lawmakers who simply don’t feel like traveling to Capitol Hill to serve the public.
“There is something about being there, in person,” said Lyle Hillyard (R – Logan) who was warm to the idea, but was concerned about abuse. “There needs to be a gatekeeper” to prevent over-use, he said.
The committee also discussed what to do if a lawmaker wished to abstain from voting. Currently, the law requires lawmakers to vote up or down on any bill if they are present for the vote, regardless of any conflicts of interest. “Most states have a way to abstain on votes,” Rep. Jim Nielson (R – Bountiful) said, according to Rep. Patrice Arent (D-Salt Lake), who was relaying Nielson’s comment from a previous meeting. Nielson’s idea would allow lawmakers to recuse themselves when they know they are unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged by any particular vote. The idea has floated around the legislature for years, most notably when Sen. Curt Bramble (R – Provo) proposed the idea in 2010. The bill ultimately went nowhere as lawmakers argued that the risk of lawmakers shirking their responsibility to vote on controversial bills was too high.
Senator Gene Davis (D – Salt Lake) summarized these arguments by reminding lawmakers of the burden lawmakers put upon themselves when they chose to become lawmakers. “That heavy burden,” Davis said, “requires us to do the people’s business.”
Discussion wrapped up with Rep. Arent proposing that the committee investigate the possibility of creating an office within the legislature that deals specifically in constituent issues. Currently, when lawmakers receive a request from a member of the public, they will often address the issue by forwarding information to the person they believe would be best suited to address a request. This system means that the citizens may not receive the most timely response. A citizen who has an experienced lawmaker as their representative is likely to be directed to the correct person more quickly than those citizens who make a request of a new legislator. Furthermore, Arent noted, similar requests from different citizens could be directed to different people within one department, even though one individual would be best suited to the task. An “Office of Constituent Services,” Arent argues, would make the office currently in charge of answering constituent requests, Legislative Research, more efficient and better able to serve the needs of lawmakers and the public.
Lawmakers ultimately took no formal action, deciding instead to prioritize these and other bills during committee. Depending on how the committee members decide to proceed, the ideas today may be further investigated and become law or be placed in the scrap heap for another year.
Clarification: we previously reported that Representative Arent spoke on behalf of Representative Nielson, she was simply conveying his feelings to the committee, not necessarily agreeing with him. Furthermore, Arent did not make a formal proposal to investigate electronic voting in the Senate, as some readers believed.