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Utah’s legislative session is super fast and dominated by a supermajority

A photo of inside the Utah capitol building during the legislative session.
Ivana Martinez
When legislators gather at the Utah state capitol, they have just 45 days to get everything done. KUER’s Sonja Hutson explains how it all comes together.

The Utah legislative session doesn't start for another three months, but KUER politics podcast State Street is getting a head start on how it all works. That's a good thing, because cramming everything that legislators want to do in 45 days is no small feat. KUER politics reporter and State Street co-host Sonja Hutson walked All Things Considered host Caroline Ballard through the ins and outs of the session.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard:  What are the pros and cons of such a short legislative session?

Sonja Hutson: The pros are that you get people from more walks of life to be lawmakers. They have to take about seven weeks off of their regular day job for the legislative session instead of several months, like we see in some other states. Even still, you do have to have a job that allows you to take seven weeks off, which isn't available to everyone. But some of the cons are that it's short. It's 45 days, and Republican State Senator Todd Weiler says that is a con.

Todd Weiler: The disadvantage, I guess, would be that you don't get as meaningful debate as you would otherwise.

CB: How does that impact the people who are working up on the hill?

SH: Let me give you an example. Sen. Weiler this year was trying to stop a bill that would repeal a bail reform law. He got together a working group to try to hammer out a compromise, but he ran out of time to find a compromise that satisfied everyone. So that bail reform repeal didn't end up going through. That time crunch impacts lobbyists, too, who don't always have the time to get involved deeply with every bill they care about because there's just so much going on in such a short period of time.

CB: Speaking of the people there and lawmakers, let's talk about the makeup of the Legislature. We have here in Utah a Republican supermajority. What does that mean?

SH: It means Republicans control about 80% of the seats in the Legislature here. I talked to Nicole Nixon about this. She used to cover Utah politics for KUER, and now she's at CapRadio covering California politics. That's another state with a supermajority. Utah has a Republican supermajority and California has a Democratic one. Here's how she described it.

Nicole Nixon: Having a supermajority — one of the perks of that is you get to basically do whatever you want and tamp down any opposition. The opposition, the minority party, the Democrats in Utah, the Republicans in California, can try all they want. They can be loud, stand up and debate, but that's really the only power they have.

SH: In Utah, Republicans have so many seats that they can even afford to lose the votes of a few members of their own party and still pass bills without Democratic support. It also means that they can override a governor's veto.

CB: What does that mean for the minority party, the Democrats?

SH: It means they don't really have a lot of power, right? They have to pass bills that are palatable to most Republicans. They can't stop bills that they don't like. So on those big, controversial issues, the only power that they have really is the power of their microphone. That can lead to things like walking out of the House chamber during a vote. Sometimes it's a little wackier.

Back in 2018, there was a Democratic state senator named Jim Dabakis, who was just notorious for being basically a Democratic loudmouth. In one of his more entertaining tactics, he showed up to a committee hearing after drinking two mimosas. This was about eight o'clock in the morning. He was speaking out against Utah's new drunk driving law, which lowered the legal limit to 0.05, and his point was that he was at the new legal limit and totally fine to do a legislative presentation.

CB: All right, so we have this very powerful Republican party, a loud, superminority in the Democrats. But political party isn't the only kind of breakdown that you look at in this episode. How representative is Utah's legislature of the state's demographics as a whole?

SH: We don't have time to go through all the numbers, but on the whole, the Utah Legislature is a lot more Republican, white, Mormon and male than the state's population as a whole. We're going to dig into some of why that is in our next episode of State Street, so look for that Monday.

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.