Saturday, April 2, 2011

Improving the Utah Legislative Process

The 2011 General Session of the Utah Legislature saw an unprecedented number of bills written and passed.  The legislative bodies managed to pass 504 bills in just 33 working days.  As you can see from this chart, we appear to be on a disquieting trend which started in 2005:

On average in 2011, we passed about 15 bills per working day.  The average bill size is about 10 pages.  Multiply that by the number of bills passed and it comes to 150 pages of reading per day that legislators needed to mull through.    

It would seem that this might be a manageable task.  Indeed, not all of the pages have new information on them, many of the pages are preexisting code and require little scrutiny.  Yet, unfortunately, the manageability of this workload is burdened by its uneven distribution through the legislative session.

At the beginning of the session, debate is long-winded and few bills are ready to be presented for a vote.  Many committee meetings are canceled due to the fact that bill language has not been properly prepared for pubic and committee scrutiny.  This leads to a crescendo in workload and bill flow as the session progresses.

To illustrate how this build-up affects the legislative process, I have put together a couple of graphics:

This above chart illustrates the traditions bill flow process.  A constituent or legislator has an idea and the legislator directs legislative research to draft a bill.  Once ready for review, the bill is numbered and released to the Rules Committee which determines whether the bill is worthy of review by a standing committee and public input.  If it does, a standing committee holds a hearing where public input is received and the merits of the bill are discussed.  A vote is taken in the committee to move the bill to the House Floor.  If the bill passes that vote, it goes to the House Floor where all the legislators are able to ask additional questions and debate the merits of the bill.  A vote is taken on the floor whether to pass the bill and send it to the Senate for consideration.  The same process then ensues in the Senate.

Now, toward the end of the session, the number of bills prepared and ready for review begins to backlog under this normal operation.  To mitigate this problem, it is typically proposed during the last few days of the session that the body operate under "Suspension of the Rules".  Here is what the flow looks like under "Suspension of the Rules":

 As you can see, the Standing Committee hearings are eliminated to expedite the bill being heard on the House Floor.  There are obvious disadvantages to this.  Public input is not able to be received and the bills are not scrutinized by committees which typically specialize in topics related to the bills they review.  It is my opinion that this practice may do more harm than good.  It seems to be the private sector equivalent of sending your quality control inspectors home so you can make a manufacturing deadline. 

My purpose here is not to point blame but to step back and take a look at our current process to see if there some things we can do to improve it.  Here are a couple suggestions that came to mind:

1.  Reduced Workload - It may seem like the legislature can pound it's chest in pride that is was so "productive" and passed so many bills.  I don't feel this is necessarily a bragging right. It seems to me that if we force nearly all bills to be heard in a standing committee, that the number of bills being passed will be reduced and thus gear legislators' talents toward quality rather than quantity.

2.  Balanced Workload - It also seems that many legislators' bills are not prepared at the beginning of the session.  It may be wise to create incentives through deadlines for legislators to have their bill's prepared in advance and also expand the Legislative staff's ability to prepare those bills before the session begins. Keeping a steady pace of hearing bills and limiting unnecessarily long-winded debate would allow legislators to do a better job of reading and vetting legislation while also conserving their personal energy for budget related issues.

I know that we will be looking at this process as a study topic during interim. It is my hope that we can come up with some good solutions that help make the process more manageable and equitable.

1 comment:

  1. Another piece is to stop legislators from holding bills circled on reading calendars for up to several weeks when they could be progressing to get committee hearings and be worked on in the other body.


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