Some members of the Utah House and Senate are living up to the term “lawmaker,” requesting dozens of potential bills eight months ahead of the 2019 session.
On Friday, state senators had collectively requested 73 bills, led by South Jordan Republican Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, with 15 requests. And, in the House, representatives collectively requested 207 bill files, with Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, personally requesting 27.
McCay declined to comment Friday. But he tweeted Thursday that the volume of his bill requests was due in part to a desire to repeal existing laws.
The numbers are drawn from a new feature on the state’s legislative website, which tracks and publicly displays the number of bill requests for each individual legislator. The decision to post that data online was made during the most recent legislative session amid perennial concerns of a backlog in the drafting process, caused by an ever-increasing number of requests.
“Legislators who flood staff with drafting requests for bills they never intend to pursue can cause genuine problems for their colleagues,” said Adam Brown, a political science professor at Brigham Young University. “This transparency about the number of bills will help prevent that problem.”
Lawmakers also routinely request what are known as “boxcars,” empty or loosely defined bills on a general topic that can be filled in later with specific language once the 45-day session approaches or is underway.
This year’s changes have narrowed lawmakers’ ability to open boxcars, with a requirement for more information on the intent of legislation to start the drafting process, according to Brent Palmer, a policy analyst with Utah’s Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel.
“We need to have enough drafting instruction to actually open up the bill file,” Palmer said.
Utah's most profilic lawmakers
A new tool on the state's legislative website tracks the number of bill files opened by each member of the Utah House and Senate.
Source: Utah Legislature
Brown, at BYU, conducts an annual analysis of the legislative session, looking at the number of bills drafted, introduced and passed and the voting patterns of Utah’s 104-member Legislature.
While the number of bill files has steadily grown in recent years — up to 1,359 in 2018 — the number formally introduced, voted on and enacted has stayed comparatively constant, Brown said.
He speculated that the added transparency would not affect the total number of bill requests each year but could mitigate the workload disparity between lawmakers.
“I expect it will deter people from making excessive requests,” Brown said. “But it will also help interests looking for somebody willing to carry their bill to identify legislators who won't have too much else on their plate.”
After McCay, the lawmaker with the second-highest number of bill requests is Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, with 19. He was followed closely Friday by Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, with 18.
Eliason remarked that he is “a distant second” compared with McCay’s 27 requests, adding that the breadth and depth of issues facing Utahns often translate to a large amount of legislation.
He said he is personally exploring bills dealing with suicide prevention — a topic he has focused on in recent years — and with opioid use.
“I never want to be accused of not giving my constituents adequate representation,” Eliason said. “If you believe that the state is perfect and there’s no room for improvement in how state government operates or is funded, then there’s probably not a need for as many bill files.”
Tuesday was the first day that lawmakers could request bill files, and Eliason said much of the early bills are likely reruns of legislation that failed to pass in March. He said he welcomed the transparency of the new website, while asserting that a large number of proposals each year is a good sign for the democratic process.
“The most important bills naturally, generally, will kind of rise to the top,” Eliason said.
But Utah’s 45-day legislative session results in a “compressed timeline,” according to Lauren Simpson, a policy and advocacy fellow with the nonprofit Alliance for a Better Utah. Each year a lot of bills fail to pass due to a lack of time to consider them, she said, and legislative staffers are under mounting pressure to draft and prepare bills.
“Some pressure to cut back wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing,” Simpson said. “Realistically, you can only get to so much.”
And Fillmore, who has requested 15 bills so far, said opening a file is only the first step. He estimated that only a third of his requested files would be formally introduced for debate next year.
“I’m doing research on several different topics at this point,” Fillmore said. “Sometimes opening a bill file is the best way to explore an idea.”