Shopping for legislation? Why Utah’s part-time Legislature may be vulnerable.

As a part-time, minimally staffed body, Utah’s lawmakers may be especially susceptible to outside influence.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r Sen. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, shares a laugh with colleague Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, during The American Legislative Exchange Council annual meeting July 28, 2021 at The Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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At the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual meeting last week in Salt Lake City, all eyes were on the keynote speakers — high-profile governors from across the nation.

State and local policymakers from across the country trawling the vendor booths received far less attention.

At ALEC, a national conservative organization that’s been criticized for matchmaking state and local policymakers with corporate interests, you will find a few speciality government software providers staffing tables, but mostly people are there to sell ideas. Legislation. From opponents of human trafficking to proponents of legalizing sex trade, leading conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and fresh local upstarts such as Utah’s own libertarian Libertas Institute.

“My team loved the event, we thought it was great,” said Libertas Institute Executive Vice President Michael Melendez, who explained that Libertas was there not to focus on “legacy” issues like abortion and education, but new fields. “For us, it’s all about what are the gaps in the policy market?”

ALEC is far from the only venue offering access to the “policy market.” Numerous national conferences, of varying political stripes, offer a marketplace for state and local policymakers to effectively shop for ideas for legislation.

With its part-time, understaffed Legislature, Utah may be more susceptible to policy shopping, according to experts. Other states, meanwhile, have found solutions that give legislators fewer reasons to look to outside interests.

What you’ll find

The vendors buying space at ALEC take varied approaches to their work. Some offer nothing more than a conversation with an expert. Others have 24-foot tables crammed with leaflets, booklets, coasters, pens, bumper stickers and mousepads, as was the case with the “Save Our States” booth — an organization dedicated to protecting the Electoral College.

“All right, how do we stop them?” asked a state legislator from Florida as he approached. “That’s all I want to know, how do we stop the socialists?”

Much of the booth’s swag made bold, red-lettered references to stopping socialists or socialism.

It took three laps around the vendor room and directions from a helpful staffer to locate the booth for the counterposition, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, tucked away in a corner.

Ray Haynes, a former Republican state senator from California and past national chairman of ALEC, staffed the National Vote booth. He had two offerings.

“If you’re in a hurry, here’s the one-sheeter, and if you’re not, there’s this,” he said, hefting a book titled “Every Vote Equal” that weighed in at 1,059 pages.

Haynes said there was a “strong conservative case” for deciding the presidency via the national popular vote.

“I’m a believer in ALEC,” said Haynes, who added that he was persuaded to support the movement via a conversation at an ALEC meeting.

The Libertas booth offered up homegrown Utah legislative wins to lawmakers from other states — advocating primarily for digital privacy and the first-of-its-kind universal regulatory sandbox passed this year by the Utah Legislature.

Melendez, of Libertas, acknowledged that because the regulatory sandbox program will not launch until the fall, “we don’t know anything about that yet.” He did cite the effectiveness of other, less broad regulatory sandboxes, just not the one that Libertas was sharing as a model at ALEC.

Why Utah is especially vulnerable

Utah’s Legislature is less professionalized than most (less pay for legislators, fewer staffers, shorter legislative sessions), and is therefore more likely to rely on outside sources for policy, said Adam Brown, associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University.

“If you don’t have as much time to work on bills yourself, and if you don’t have as much staff assistance, then you rely more on what outside actors can do for you,” Brown said. “That might be lobbyists you have worked with in the past and trust; it might mean digging less deeply into the governor’s proposals; or it might mean relying on a group like ALEC.”

Utah legislators do not have personal staff the way members of the U.S. Congress do. The only individualized support they receive is from the undergraduate interns who serve during the 45-day legislative session (and even interns are sometimes shared among legislators). Utah legislators who are not in leadership must do the work themselves or turn to some outside group to prep legislation before the session.

Brown says having personal staff does not take away the need or temptation to consult with outside interests. “But lacking personal staff will certainly fuel some additional desire to seek out information from others,” he said, “and it takes away one source of information that legislators could use to check out what outside groups are telling them.”

Data-driven legislation?

Providing personal staff, even shared personal staff, to Utah legislators could be costly. It’s not the only solution, however.

Two years ago, North Carolina established the Office of Strategic Partnerships (OSP), which seeks to bolster data-driven governance and policymaking in the state by connecting government leaders, academic institutions and local philanthropy.

The OSP holds monthly online chats, helps connect experts from academia with executives in state agencies, and vice versa, and formalizes connections among these organizations. The purpose of these activities is to make partnerships easier and more effective, with the goal of evidence-based policymaking.

“Many, many, states want to do something like this,” said Jenni Owen, OSP’s director, “and you don’t have to do the full model to see benefits.”

She emphasized simply having some coordinating body to help make the connections could leverage the talent Utah already possesses in its state agencies, academic centers and research institutions.

“At the end of the day,” Owen said, “it’s about getting those conversations rolling.”

She said that openness and transparency with OSP’s conversations, dialogue and data are essential ingredients to creating objective, evidence-based policy.

At ALEC, by contrast, most work sessions are held behind closed doors.


Solutions in practice - policy hacking

Outside organizations are not the only source of influence on state and local lawmakers. You as a constituent can help bring about DIY evidence-based policy by working with your local legislator. Here’s a step by step guide to “policy hacking.”

  1. Pick an issue of importance to you. Try to be as narrow, local and specific in focus as possible. Be clear about, “What is the problem that needs to be solved?”

  2. Identify your local lawmaker (you can find your state representative and senator here).

  3. Find an expert or experts on your policy issue (e.g., you can look up experts at the University of Utah by subject, here - note, results may take a moment to load).

  4. Do your research, prepare questions then schedule a call with your expert(s). See what information, data, and direction they can provide.

  5. Contact your legislator(s) and schedule a time to discuss the issue. Come prepared with a 1-page memo outlining the problem, and what the data and experts tells us.

  6. Be persistent, become a data hound, and feel free to reach out to The Tribune’s Innovation Lab with any questions.