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Commentary: The public’s business on the public’s dime should be in the public eye. End boxcar bills.

The floor of the Utah House of Representatives is shown during the first day of the Utah legislative session Monday, Jan. 28, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

For quite a few years, the Utah Legislature has practiced a kind of deception of the public. Legislators are allowed to file a bill that has only a title, but no content. The empty bill (referred to as a “boxcar” bill because there is nothing in it) means that legislators know what they intend to do with the bill, but the public doesn’t. The United Utah Party calls for that practice to end.

Legislators defend the practice because it preserves their ability to negotiate a bill’s content throughout the session and then come up with a bill once the details have been worked out by various legislators. They can work out the specifics in private and then release the bill in its full form when they are ready to pass it. Boxcar bills give legislators maximum flexibility to work out deals without the bother of public involvement in the bill crafting process.

If the Legislature were a privately held company that is not required by law to report what it is doing, then that approach would be understandable. But it is not a privately held company. It is the public’s representative body doing the public’s business on the public dime. Therefore, the public needs to know what is going on in its name by its representatives. Without knowledge, the public cannot weigh in with views on the bill. Those views are not extraneous or bothersome to what the Legislature does. They are at its heart.

Clearly, the public cannot be in every room of the Capitol and privy to every hallway conversation. Bills are a different matter. They are the products of legislative business. They should be the most public of actions by a legislature — from their introduction to their ultimate passage, rejection or withdrawal.

Utah government officials like to view themselves as superior to the federal government, but, in this regard, Utah’s Legislature falls short. Congress is more transparent than the Utah Legislature. When a bill is filed in Congress, it includes not only the name of the sponsor and the title of the bill, but the actual content of the bill. That doesn’t mean amendments can’t be made, but, in Congress, those are public as well. In the case of boxcar bills, the whole bill (including any amendment) is outside public scrutiny.

In an age of transparency, it is time for the Utah Legislature to end the practice of boxcar bills. The policy should be that no bill can be filed unless it has content. Also, no bill should be allowed to bypass the normal process of committee hearings and deliberation. That means that all bills should be required to go through the normal process. Otherwise, the bill does not receive a floor vote.

Legislators are elected to conduct the people’s business. Keeping that business away from public knowledge is a betrayal of the public trust. It is time for the Legislature to end practices that keep the public in the dark rather than invite them to participate in the process of their own governance.

Jim Urquhart | The Salt Lake Tribune Richard Davis, a political science professor at Brigham Young University and chairman of the United Utah Party, April 6, 2010, at his office at BYU in Provo.

Richard Davis is chairman of the United Utah Party.

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