During Utah’s 45-day legislative session, there is undoubtedly at least one bill that might pique your interest enough to want to follow along and maybe even try to help the bill (or kill the bill). If you are new to Utah’s political process, though, even reading a bill might be a bit confusing. I know it was for me.

When I read my first bill, I wondered what in the strange heck was going on with all the numbers down the left side of the page. I’ve since learned that the line numbers make it very easy to go straight to a specific section of text. Instead of saying, “Go to page 4, paragraph 5, about a third of the way through,” you simply direct people to “Line 812.” Easy, once you know how.

Then, it can be confusing at first glance to see what the bill actually does, especially in a bill that seems to be very long. First, take a look at the “short title” (the one in all caps at the top of the page), then take a look at the “long title,” just under the sponsor information. There you will find a general description, monies appropriated, the section or sections of Utah State Code the new bill language will affect and, sometimes, a description of legislative intent. Intent can be helpful to the passage of a bill and to maintaining its integrity later on but, unless it’s actually encoded into the law, it’s not legally binding.

You sometimes will see very long bills that actually change very little. The bill might affect large sections of existing code, requiring those sections to be renumbered. You can see the proposed new code by looking for underlined words. Strike-throughs show language to be deleted.

As bills move through the process of becoming law, there are often changes made to them. Some are substantive while others are small. Some are hostile takeovers and some are considered friendly. Some changes are made in committee and others on the floor. I’ve seen bills hijacked and gutted so thoroughly by a series of amendments that the bill’s own sponsor will kill it. The process of public vetting of bills is designed to maximize the chances of passing a “good bill” and decrease the chances of letting bad bills become law.

A bill I’ve been following this session is House Bill 75, or HB75, by Rep. Merrill Nelson, Child Sex Abuse Amendments. When the bill was first released, it defined any sexual relationship between stepsiblings as incest. People could quickly see potential problems — adults who meet and marry and then their (divorced) parents later also marry, or adults who become stepsiblings after their parents marry and develop a romantic relationship, would legally be committing incest. You can see the original bill here as it compares to the current version.

In committee, the bill was changed to drop the word “incest” and clarify that it was sexual abuse if children (under age 18) engaged in sexual activity, including children who are biologically related, adopted or stepsibling. You can see the current version of the bill here.

That particular bill is not long and does not add very much new language. In fact, there are just a handful of new words, on lines 231 and 232.

If you have an interest in following — and influencing — Utah’s legislative process, be sure to go to Utah’s legislative website, le.utah.gov. Utah’s website is top-notch for ease of use and ability to find information. If you want email notifications of bill changes, enter your email on the bill page, on the right-hand side under “Track This.”

You can find live audio streaming of all committee hearings and live audio-visual streaming of all floor debates. If you want to listen later, committee and floor hearings are saved and accessible, going back years. You can find your legislators and their contact information, who is on what committee and much, much more.

Finally, if you want some hands-on audio-visual guidance, today’s article includes a walk-through of a couple of bills, one old, one new, and a little tour around the legislative website. Please get involved. We need your voices and your input.

(Photo Courtesy Holly Richardson)

Holly Richardson, a Salt Lake Tribune columnist, is a political advocate, a policy wonk and a former member of the Utah House of Representatives. She believes the best laws are made with input from many sides.