The Utah state legislative session is a whirlwind of activity as our representatives work to get a year’s worth of state business accomplished in just 45 days each year. This year’s session was no exception.
According to a report by Brigham Young Uniersity political science professor Adam Brown, in 2023 the legislature introduced 929 bills, more than during any session in the last 15 years. The final tally of 575 bills passed was also a 15-year record.
The frenetic pace of the session and the deluge of legislation raises a question — does this process allow for legislation to be well-researched and thoughtfully considered? Does this breakneck pace allow citizens to be appropriately engaged in the legislative process? These questions are vitally important if we are to have a healthy state government.
As the governor has now finished signing the last of these bills into law, we want to review some of the actions and outcomes of the session against a few key national values that form a bedrock for healthy democracies: the importance of transparency in governance and respect for the rules and norms.
Legislators often tell constituents, judge the session by what passed, not by what was introduced. But the introduction of performative legislation wastes precious time. The attention of legislators, the public, and affected parties is pulled away from the consideration of substantive bills. Take for example, the many election related bills introduced in the session this year. Of the 36 election-related bills that were introduced, only 13 were shepherded through to passage.
Similarly, legislators introduced over 100 education-related bills; many of them were deeply controversial bills that did not pass, despite advancing far into the legislative process before ultimately stalling. This created controversy that diverted the attention of citizens and legislators away from other important issues.
The rules governing Utah’s legislative process encourage deliberation for a reason — so issues can be discussed and debated, the public can weigh in and changes can be made prior to laws being passed. When this process is respected, it is both representative and fair. Each bill appears in committee hearings in the House and Senate, where members of the public, advocacy organizations, government agencies and other affected parties have the opportunity to give public comments on legislation in-person or virtually. This critical step respects the relationship between citizens and our elected lawmakers, and gives us necessary insight and context regarding the practical implications of a bill.
Unfortunately, during the last week of the legislative session, the Legislature often votes to suspend the rules governing this process. Bills pass through fewer committees, and the result is less public input, less turn-around time between steps in the process and hasty votes on the floor with minimal debate.
In 2023, 363 bills were passed during the last week of the session (compared to 48 bills the week prior). A high volume of bills passing in a compressed time frame does not allow for adequate consideration of every bill. Sometimes the process is deliberately compressed even earlier in the session. HB215, a controversial bill that merited longer discussion and deliberation, passed in the House just three days after the legislative session began, when there was still ample time in the session for adequate engagement.
Besides being unduly rushed, HB215 was also problematic because, contrary to the Utah Constitution, it unjustifiably combined two disparate issues in one bill — teacher pay and school choice/voucher program. Rules were manipulated to allow legislators to force through an unpopular measure by linking it to something with broad support and standards of transparency were violated.
It is reasonable to ask that our legislators should seek to be both honest and transparent about both the content of legislation and the process by which it is passed.
The actions of some legislators demonstrate a concerning abuse of elected power that threatens the ability of Utah citizens to be full and active participants in government. Indeed, the Utah Constitution states that “all political power is inherent in the people.”
We echo the governor’s recent sentiments in asking Utah’s legislators to consider their role in this process and to support legislation in a way that respects rules and norms, is transparent, and that brings all stakeholders to the table to create thoughtful solutions where all voices are heard.
Melarie Wheat and Elizabeth Vanderwerken are co-coordinators for the Utah Chapter of Mormon Women for Ethical Government.