With the end of this year’s legislative session on the horizon, Utah lawmakers are working through a record number of bills — and taking a step they hope may curb the flow in future years.
State lawmakers opened 1,359 bill files this year, an all-time high that has increased from the previous record of 1,298 set last year.
This comes after a November meeting during which legislative leaders discussed the problem of the increasing amount of bill requests. Members of the House said then that an anonymous senator had opened a whopping 83 bill files, and Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, called the lack of self-restraint “ridiculous.”
In response to complaints about the mystery senator and others, Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, introduced HJR13, a rule that would require publicly disclosing the number of bill files opened by every lawmaker — an attempt to prod legislators to check themselves through a kind of public shaming.
“It’s more like a scarlet letter,” he said, “than it is a badge of courage.”
McCay has since abandoned the resolution, but its language is moving forward in HJR16 carried by Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville. The resolution cleared the House 71-0 and now awaits Senate action.
Ironically, while McCay is part of the pushback against run-amok bill writing, he also happens to be the most prolific requester of public bills — a total of 32.
So many bills, so little time
Some lawmakers have complained about the record number of bills and bill requests in this 45-day legislative session — 1,359. One mystery senator allegedly submitted more than 80 requests — but because of the ability of lawmakers to designate bills “protected,” that person has never been identified.
The Salt Lake Tribune used available public records to identify the most prolific bill sponsors:
32 Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton
28 • Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy
27 • Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper
23 • Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross
23 • Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden
21 • Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville
21 • Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan
20 • Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork
19 • Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City
18 • Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-SouthJordan
18 • Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield
Part of the reason for this, McCay said, is that he opens a number of ”boxcar” bills each year to act as a placeholder for important legislation that may come up later in the session.
McCay said he has made all of his boxcar bill requests public. Many lawmakers designate their bill files as “protected,” and those proposals are not made public until a sponsor decides to pursue the legislation.
Under HJR16, all bill file requests would be counted, even protected ones.
Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, who has served in the Legislature since 1997, said that keeping most bills protected used to be the norm.
He said that protected bills are useful if lawmakers don’t know whether they are going to run certain measures, especially if the topic is sensitive.
“Until you find out whether it’s legitimate or not and it needs to proceed,” he said, “you don’t want to go through and have anything that happens that would embarrass one of your constituents or their family members.”
Harper is also one of the top bill sponsors, with 21 filed or requested bills. He abandoned seven others.
Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, closely follows McCay on a list of the most prolific bill sponsors — with 28.
“We work for the taxpayers and citizens,” Eliason said. “So I hope that the number of bills I’m running shows that I’m taking my job seriously.”
But one thing Eliason wants to make clear: Despite what some people say, lawmakers do not get paid a commission for each bill they pass.
He also said many people don’t realize that even repealing existing law requires a bill. Besides, legislators are fairly selective about the measures that make it through, he said.
“By design of the process, the most important bills are going to be prioritized and the rest will fall by the wayside.”
Sen. Howard A. Stephenson, R-Draper, has 27 bill requests this year, No. 3 overall, and the most of any senator.
“Each legislator has to decide how responsive he or she will be to the people who elected them,” Stephenson said. “I choose to open bill files when people bring me an issue that they are deeply concerned about.”
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, is close behind Stephenson, with 23 bills.
He said that he runs a lot of bills because he is one of two attorneys in the Senate, and many legal issues come to his desk.
Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, also has requested 23 bills for this session. He doesn’t feel any shame in running a lot of bills because doing so lets him serve his constituents.
He has no problem with a public listing of bill count by legislator, but notes the irony of McCay originally carrying it — “it’s interesting coming from the sponsor who opens up the most boxcar bills.”
Fawson said some bills are intended mostly to spur debate or negotiation.
“Sometimes, frankly, bill files are opened in order to promote conversation,” he said. “If we feel like we can’t bring stakeholders to the table without opening a bill file … that’s a lever that we can pull.”
Eliason said that when the news media report a single number as a record amount of bills, it makes the public think that the proliferation of bills is “nefarious.”
Judging the aggregate of bill requests isn’t fair, he said. “Let’s take it one bill at a time.”