Lawmakers: Extend Leg Session, Reduce Hidden Bills

utah capitolOn Monday, lawmakers gathered prior to the final interim session Wednesday to discuss ways to increase public access during the annual legislative session.

The Legislative Process Committee tackled several topics related to the sausage grinding that surrounds the rules governing the session, but the two that received the most attention were extending the legislative session and reducing the number of so-called “protected” bills before and during the session.

In an attempt to tackle the traditional last week crunch that takes place during at the end each session, several on the committee spoke in support of extending the session beyond its current 45 day limitation. Because the number of days is set by the Utah Constitution, any such change would require an amendment and the support of the public to change.

[pullquote][T]he evidence we have looked at in the past has indicated that we are doing a lot of things to basically shortcut the process. – Representative Mel Brown[/pullquote] Representative Mel Brown (Republican – Coalville), a long time advocate for expanding the legislative session laid out his point bluntly. “As the dynamics of the state have grown: population, size of budget, time demands, and so on, the legislature tries earnestly to do the public’s business in the same amount of time, but there is much more work to do,”  Brown told the committee. He added that “the evidence we have looked at in the past has indicated that we are doing a lot of things to basically shortcut the process. Less committee debate, less floor debate, more bills without any debate, more consent bills, more bills are being passed that legislators have no time to read. Yeah, we are doing quantity but not quality – and I think it is in the public’s interest that we take a look at this.”

Brown joked that voters may balk at the idea of an extended legislative session, “[legislators] do enough damage as it is” he snickered.

Senator Lyle Hillyard (Republican – Logan) noted that, though the session is 45 calendar days, the reality is that the session is only 32 working days. Hillyard added that, from a public relations standpoint it looks bad that legislators get paid for 45 days, despite only working 32. John Fellows, General Council for the Committee, was quick to remind the committee that, though this is true, the citizen legislature returns to the district on weekends and are constantly interacting with constituents, doing the work of the people during and after the session.

An initial proposal from Senator Gene Davis (Democrat – Salt Lake) to study the issue after the 2015 session was met with disappointment from Brown. “Sounds to me like a typical legislative response – keep studying it and nothing gets done.” Representative Lee Perry (Republican – Perry) proposed that the legislative session be modified to state that session be changed so that lawmakers work for 45 business days, lasting no longer than 90 total days.

Lawmakers also tackled the idea of protected bills – bills that Legislative Council have worked work on, but have not been presented to the public for inspection.

Fellows outlined the pro’s and con’s of protected bills. On one hand, protected bills that can not be inspected by the public allow lawmakers to test ideas prior to public consumption, and that bills can become tainted before it is truly ready – ultimately being dead on arrival. On the flip side Fellows noted that protected bills restrict public access to legislation and can cause bills to be sprung on other lawmakers with little opportunity to study a topic.

The committee was presented with five possible routes of action ranging from the status quo to doing away with protected bills all together. The committee would eventually settle on a hybrid system where lawmakers could have a limit of three protected bills going into the session – if a lawmaker exceeded their  quota, they would have to either abandon a previously protected bill or make the language public. Furthermore, the committee suggested that all bills would be made public no later than a week into the session.

These suggestions will be advanced to the Legislative Management Committee to evaluate the suggestions. If approved, legislation could be proposed for the general legislative to consider.

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