In Utah, unpopular proposals aren’t voted down — lawmakers just let them die

(Benjamin Wood | The Salt Lake Tribune) With only minutes to go until midnight, the absolute deadline for legislative business, Rep. Ed Redd, R-Logan, moved to the House gallery to drape a white cloth over the chamber's clock.

Every year, Brigham Young University political science professor Adam Brown evaluates the Utah Legislature with a swarm of statistics. This year, even he was surprised at some unusual findings that emerged, including:

• Despite hoopla about members requesting a record 1,359 bills to be drafted, lawmakers passed 533 — two fewer than last year’s record of 535, and roughly what they have passed in recent years. That suggests they probably have reached the maximum they can pass in a 45-day session under current rules.

• Legislators rarely vote down bills. Brown said it seems they don’t want to vote against friends. They instead rely on prioritization by leaders to kill bad bills by preventing final votes on them in the rushed final days. Also, most successful bills win by big majorities — supported by more than 9 of 10 lawmakers on average.

• Despite Republican supermajorities, Democrats do surprisingly well in passing bills — probably because they have decided “to go along to get along,” instead of merely throwing bombs at the large majority, Brown said.

• Newly appointed Sen. Brian Zehnder, R-Cottonwood Heights, is the first legislator in memory to actually vote more often with opposing Democrats than with his own party. His district is viewed as the most competitive in the state. His predecessor, Sen. Brian Shiozawa, was a centrist, but Zehnder’s record is actually Democratic.

Brown also figured some categories that are oldies-but-goodies, including who passed the most legislation and who struck out the most often.

Natural limit

Brown said while the Legislature ordered 1,359 bills to be drafted, it introduced 817 and passed 533 in 45 days. Not counting weekends, that is only 33 workdays.

“They can introduce as many as they like, but they are only going to get so many to the floor with the amount of time that they are scheduling,” Brown said, adding it appears they have reached that “natural limit.”

He adds that is “a tremendous number to consider in a 45-day session.” Also, more than half of the bills — 286 of 533 — passed in the last four days with limited debate.

FILE - This Tuesday, March 6, 2018, file photo shows Rep. Mike Noel, right, R-Kanab, voting on the House floor at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City. Utah lawmakers wound down their annual session Thursday after opening a record number of bills but failing to pass proposals on hot-button issues, including a repeal of the death penalty and a gun-control measure. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, agrees the Legislature “is close to its limit” for the number of bills it may pass. “Given the amount of floor time for debate, it’s hard to see how we could handle much more.”

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, disagrees. “I think we could do more if we wanted, but I’m not sure that’s wise.” He said lawmakers could stay later at night and cut down on time-consuming citations and resolutions honoring visitors.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said the fast-moving last week allows for shenanigans. He notes that a substitute bill to create an inland port in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant was unveiled late at night, and few had seen it.

“They just pushed it through. We didn’t know what was in it,” he said. After short debate, “the Senate concurred, with less than maybe a half-hour debate on a huge bill in both houses.” He adds, “The tolerance by many for a weak process is not something I am comfortable with.”

Still, Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said the process usually works well. “Most bills passed in that last week have already had two committee hearings and debate in the other house, so they have been vetted.”

Few ‘no’ votes

Brown said lawmakers tend to be “Utah nice. That is, many prefer not to publicly vote against their colleagues’ bills. In 2018, only 1 percent of Utah Senate votes had a negative outcome; it was 3 percent in the Utah House.”

So how were the hundreds of bills that failed actually killed?

Most die because leaders never allow them to get to a hearing, or prioritize them in a way during the final hectic days, when most bills pass, so that unpopular ones never gain final consideration in the House or Senate.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, votes no on a roll call vote as she talks with Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, on the floor of the House at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City, Monday, Feb. 26, 2018.

“We might conclude that legislators have collectively abdicated to leadership their responsibility to vote no,” Brown said, adding members especially want to avoid awkward votes that may split their most ardent supporters.

He said examples were failed moves to rename a highway for President Donald J. Trump, and another to ban abortions of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome. Both were popular with the conservative wing of Republicans, but not with party moderates. Both failed to come to a final vote.

“It was a little weird with the Trump bill, for example,” Brown said. “There was a unanimous Republican vote for it in committee, and yet a boisterous voice vote” cheering both when its consideration was delayed and later withdrawn, even though many members insisted they hoped the bill would pass.

Legislative leaders disagree with Brown. They say it is the rank-and-file members — not leaders — who prioritize which bills are considered in the final days by filling out questionnaires. So members are not abdicating choices on what may die.

Wilson notes he saw two of his own bills die as time ran out the last night. “I’m the House majority leader, so if it were up to leaders to decide what is considered — you would think my bills would have come up. But some of my colleagues’ bills had a higher priority.”

Democrats do well

Republicans, who enjoy huge majorities, passed 66 percent of their bills. Outgunned Democrats still managed to pass 57 percent, which Brown said is great considering Republicans could squash all their efforts if they so chose.

Most likely that outcome results from Democrats choosing not to be bomb-throwers, Brown said.

“They’ve chosen the ‘go along to get along’ strategy, meaning they hold their nose and vote for a lot of things so they don’t use up their political capital. They have success, they make a lot of friends across the aisle to the point that when they choose to make a stink, they don’t always win but they are taken seriously,” he said.

Legislative leaders generally agree with that.

FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2018, file photo, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, speaks on the Senate floor at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City. Utah Democrats are pushing back on a proposal to rename a scenic highway after President Donald Trump, with one saying he'd suggest naming a frontage road after porn star Stormy Daniels. Dabakis tweeted that he'd suggest an amendment naming a frontage road after Daniels, who alleges she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

“I do like to think that we pick our battles carefully,” Democrat King said. “There are times that we take stands. But we can’t just go up and throw bombs, or we would be minimalized pretty quickly.”

Niederhauser said Republicans generally look at the policy of a bill, and not who is sponsoring it.

Brown said the average House vote saw 94 percent of that body voting together, and that rose to 97 percent in the Senate. Only 1 in 10 House votes were decided along party lines, and only 1 in 20 were in the Senate.

Zehnder zigs when Republicans zag

When party-line votes did arise, Zehnder voted with his fellow Republicans only 43.8 percent of the time.

“He went with the other party more often than his own,” Brown said, adding he hasn’t seen that previously in the numbers he’s been crunching since 2007.

One of the more centrist members in previous studies was Shiozawa, whom Zehnder was appointed to replace when the former moved out of state.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Brian Zehnder, R-Salt Lake, is welcomed as the newest member to the Senate floor for the opening of the 2018 legislative session at the Utah Capitol on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018.

“We see his district as the most competitive in the state” between Democrats and Republicans, Davis said. So such a record may help a candidate there.

That voting record “doesn’t concern us as [GOP] legislative leadership, but it may concern some members of our body,” Niederhauser said. A more bipartisan approach may make sense “in a district that has been held by Democrats in the past, and may be again in the future.”

Who passed the most bills

Brown annually also figures out who passed the most bills, who had the best “batting averages” out of the bills introduced, and who had the least success.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, passed the most: 17 bills. Four other lawmakers passed 16 each: Reps. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, and Sens. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, and Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, speaks on SB138 in the Senate Chamber, Salt Lake City, Friday Feb. 23, 2018.

Sixteen lawmakers passed all of they bills they introduced, House Speaker Greg Hughes and Niederhauser among them.

Three lawmakers failed to pass any bill they introduced: Reps. Susan Duckworth, D-Magna; Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield; and newly appointed Adam Robertson, R-Provo.

Three lawmakers did not introduce any bills, including Rep. Jon Stanard, R-St. George, who resigned during the session just before a tabloid reported that he had hired a prostitute. Rep. Travis Seegmiller, who replaced him, also introduced no bills. Also, Rep. Lynn Hemingway, D-Millcreek, missed the entire session, staying in New York City with his wife, who became critically ill during a visit there.