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As Utah Lawmakers Pass More Bills Each Year, They're Debating Them Less

Austen Diamond for KUER

Utah lawmakers often pride themselves as a deliberative, decision-making body, spending just 45 days each year to pass legislation, but new research may suggest otherwise.

“The critical question with so many bills, in so few days, is how much time they’re devoting to them?” asked Brigham Young University Political Science Professor Adam Brown, who’s been researching just that.

During the 2019 Utah Legislature, lawmakers broke their previous record by passing 574 bills — two-thirds of which Gov. Gary Herbert has already signed into law. Last year they passed 533 pieces of legislation.

Brown crunched some numbers and found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that as lawmakers pass more bills each year, the amount of time they’re openly debating them on the House and Senate floor has declined.

Analyzing video on the Legislature’s website, Brown found the median bill that passed was discussed about 10.5 minutes in each chamber. Subtract the two minutes or so for voting, and both the House and Senate were debating their bills between 6-8 minutes each.

Beyond that, he also found very few bills fail once they do reach the floor, only 4 percent of bills debated did not end up passing.

So why is Brown watching legislative highlight reels? He says doing so can help determine how much influence individual legislators have on the process.

“Does the power lie on the floor, meaning that every individual member knows what they’re voting on every time and actively is engaged in crafting that legislation and passing it? Or does the power lie somewhere else?”

That could mean more power in committees, party leadership or outside influence.

Although he can’t draw definitive conclusions from the data, Brown said a drop in floor debate may suggest more power is weighted in committees or party leadership.

But state Sen. Daniel Hemmert, the Senate Majority Whip, said floor debate is not the full story. The Orem Republican said the bulk of the bills they pass are small, technical changes, like changing an “and” to an “or,” not sweeping new laws.

“I would say the vast majority of bills are like this — short little technical changes in code that require bills to modify [them]. And there’s just not a lot to say about them.” he said.

The second thing, Hemmert said, is there’s a lot more that happens before the vote is called, with discussions taking place between lawmakers in and out of committees, in caucus and between floor time.

“By the time of the floor vote, hopefully you have close to a finished products that doesn’t require a lot of floor debate — or deliberation on the floor — because that has already occurred,” he said.

BYU’s Brown said he isn’t making judgments whether less floor debate is good or bad, but says it does suggest that lawmakers are defering more to committees and party leadership on which bills are prioritized.

“At the very least, in the Utah Legislature, the bulk of decision making is not happening on the floor. It would take more time per bill to do that,” he said.

Brown says it’s worth considering how the legislative branch can maintain the character of a part-time citizen legislature and still consider as many bills.

Asked whether he thinks the Legislature may be biting off too much, Hemmert said it’s a subjective measure.

“I think when you start chasing numbers, you start missing the purpose for legislating,” said Hemmert.

Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.
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