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Legislative Attorneys Have Their Work Cut Out For Them This Session

Photo of the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel building
Jon Reed
Three attorneys left the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel ahead of the 2020 legislative session.

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The attorneys who write bills that become Utah laws are always swamped during the legislative session. They work long hours and weekends, and often through the January and February holidays, including the upcoming President’s Day. 

But just before the start of the session this year, three key drafters left — one over health concerns and another for a job elsewhere, according to senior management with the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel. 

And with 1,322 bills filed this session — a near record — that’s made the already daunting workload even more challenging. It’s also left some lawmakers worried their bills won’t get considered.

“It's the process we're in, it's the state we're in right now,” said State Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry. “We have a low unemployment rate and so it gives our attorneys a chance to go other places if we can’t find ways to keep them here.”

Perry has 10 bills written so far, and another eight are still being drafted. 

He said he’s heard complaints, not just from other lawmakers but people with personal connections to bills, wondering when they are coming out. He’s had to tell them there’s a backlog.

“If we could have more people over there, we would,” Perry said. “But we have to balance the budget in this state and can't have an overstock of staff just in case we lose one prior to the session.“

There are currently 20 legislative attorneys who provide all legal services to the Utah Legislature, including bill drafting. About a quarter of them are in their first or second years, which can slow the process down as well, since it usually takes about three years to get up to speed, according to the legislative research office.

On top of that, the special session in December to hammer out a new tax plan took away valuable draft time ahead of the 2020 session.

But even with those challenges, not all lawmakers have had issues. State Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, said the delays this year are normal.

He’s opened 41 bill files this session — more than anyone else — and said any holdups could also be the fault of lawmakers themselves. They have to open bill files to get a place in line and provide drafting instructions to attorneys. If either are delayed, that can slow things down too.

“The question is, is it the attorneys being slow? Or is it the legislators not getting the information back to the attorneys in an appropriate time?” Anderegg said. 

It remains to be seen how this session will turn out, but Perry predicts there will be fewer bills passed than in previous years. As of Friday afternoon, 520 bills have been drafted and introduced, which the Office of Legislative Research said is a good sign this year is on par with others. Plus, in past crunches, bills have been drafted and passed in a single day.

Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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