Utah’s lawmakers choose to make poor use of little time they have, Editorial Board writes

Legislature should have deadlines for bills to be introduced, considered and passed.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Legislators applaud after Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Mathew Durrant gave his speech to the legislature, on opening day of the 2023 session, on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.

On paper, the Utah Legislature has 45 days to consider a year’s worth of problems and sift through a great many, often conflicting, solutions. Not a lot of time for such important work.

(And when we say “paper,” it’s not just any old scrap. It’s the Utah Constitution.)

In reality, lawmakers don’t even make full use of the days allowed them. That is a serious dereliction of their duty and a result of rules that do not demand the kind of focus a limited timeline should require.

Most years, many consequential decisions are made in the last few days, if not the last few hours, of the session. It’s more than the natural human impulse to delay everything until the last minute — though that’s undoubtedly part of it.

It’s a deliberate choice by legislative leaders to hold important matters close to their vests until it is too late for anyone who might oppose their plans — or just want an opportunity to hear what those plans are — to have any meaningful input.

This year, lawmakers pulled another public-excluding trick. This time, instead of making all the big calls at the end of the session, they pushed through a couple of major ones right out of the gate.

It took less than two weeks from the opening bell for the Legislature to pass, and for Gov. Spencer Cox to sign, a bill that seeks to steer $45 million out of public education and into vouchers to be spent for private, religious or home-schooling. At the same time, a bill to ban gender-affirming treatments — not just surgeries but also widely accepted hormone treatments — for transgender youth was pushed through and signed.

Even if those bills were good ideas, there was no reason to short-circuit the process and deny those affected and those who have made a study of the issues their life’s work a chance to significantly have a say.

As this editorial is published, the Legislature will have five working days left in its 2023 session. In that time, or less, many giant decisions — and several petty ones — are likely to be made. Although we know the general outlines of what may be the biggest issues, it is already far too late for any detailed plans to be made public and to be properly considered by legislators, much less digested and commented on by the general public.

The general public. You know. In whose name the Legislature governs and in whose house they work.

The clock is ticking most loudly for our woefully underfunded public schools. Legislative leaders have made no secret — not just this year but for a long time now — that their primary goals are cutting income taxes and finding a way to steer large amounts of money out of the income tax stream now constitutionally promised to education and services for the disabled.

The millions, even billions, of dollars that flow into the income tax fund but don’t get spent on education are seen by our elected leaders as a “surplus” that needs to be returned to taxpayers, spent on other priorities, or both. Which is sort of like bragging about all that money in your pocket when you neglected to pay your rent.

Responsible legislating would involve specific bills drafted early in the session, if not before, and refined in public hearings where there is time not just to argue but to come and reason together.

Many other bills have been dropped anywhere from half-way through the session to barely a week before its end, with no time for legislative or public review. Which, as they say, is not a bug, but a feature.

One bill would force Salt Lake County to allow a gravel pit near I-80 in Parleys Canyon. Another was amended at the last minute, with no explanation to affected parties or the legislative committee that supposedly had jurisdiction, to force Summit County to make room for a development the county government and local resident had sharply opposed.

Others would undermine the state’s successful and popular vote-by-mail system and restore the power of unrepresentative caucus and convention delegates to ignore candidates who seek to get on the ballot by gathering signatures.

Or prohibit state colleges and universities from funding diversity, equity and inclusion offices, without giving either the colleges or those who benefit from such policies a chance to explain their worth.

Or copy and paste Florida’s controversial “Don’t say gay” law and impose on Utah schools a gag order banning discussion of the kind of families many children quite happily grow up in .

Those who oppose these measures, and even those who might otherwise support them, should be wary of a legislative system where an idea moves from a gleam in the eye one day to the law of the land the next.

The trick of moving legislation through “under suspension of the rules” is used so often that one is left to wonder, “What rules?”

With only 45 days to work with, our Legislature must do a better job of traffic control. Set deadlines for bills to be introduced and for them to pass their house of origin before moving to the other house. Make much more effective use of the months between sessions - with the long-existing but little-used interim committee structure - to float specific ideas and suss out concerns well ahead of time.

Our lawmakers owe their constituents an approach that values quality over quantity, and deliberation over speed. It is how representative democracy is supposed to work.