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Utah lawmaker Aaron Osmond calls for more transparency

Published January 8, 2013 8:48 am

Politics • Proposal would end the secret "boxcar" bills that the public can't read and respond to until late in the session.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It could be the end of the line for the so-called boxcar if state Sen. Aaron Osmond gets his way.

Osmond wants to end the long-standing practice that lets legislators create a boxcar — an empty bill file — and keep the contents secret until late in the legislative session.

"My goal is to create an environment where the public and those affected by legislation would have plenty of time to read and respond to legislation before it hits the floor," Osmond said.

His bill would require every piece of legislation to have a title and reasonably specific description of what the bill would do at least two weeks before the start of the session.

If a lawmaker wants to open a new bill file after that, it would require approval of two-thirds of the legislators in both the House and Senate.

"I think it's important to understand why a legislator couldn't get a bill done before the session began. It puts more responsibility on the legislator to get prepared before the session,"

By requiring the bills, or at least specific descriptions of the bills, to be publicly available, Osmond said, legislators could have avoided the HB477 debacle.

That was the legislation overhauling Utah's public records laws, restricting access to some material, that was made public in the last days of the 2011 session and rushed through the House and Senate.

The public outcry over the bill prompted a special session to repeal the law.

Appropriations bills, which are typically written and passed at the end of the session, would not be subject to the mid-January deadline for releasing descriptions of bills.

Osmond is also looking to change a practice in which bills can quickly pass one body, then sit dormant until the end of the session when they can be quickly amended and rushed through final passage.

His bill would only allow a bill to be "circled" — essentially put on hold — for five days before it is sent back to the Rules Committee.

"My goal is to create more transparency in the legislative process to the benefit of the public … and prevent last-minute decision-making on bills that remain circled until the end of the legislative session," he said.

Maryann Martindale, executive director of the progressive group Alliance For A Better Utah, said she is excited about Osmond's proposal and what it would mean for transparency of bills at the Legislature.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he has spoken "conceptually" with Osmond about his plan. And while he hasn't seen specifics of his proposal, he does think that some changes might be in order.

"I think there are some problems there and I support a process to address them," he said.

"Of course we want to have more transparency."

He said Osmond's proposal will likely get considerable debate and he thinks lawmakers will reach some solution that addresses the issues without taking away legitimate uses for boxcar bills.

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke