Utah Legislature has outgrown old system of reviewing bills
March 16, 2013
Park City’s representative to the Utah Legislature, Kraig Powell, is a brave man. He has said aloud (and in print) what many others know but refuse to admit: that during the last hectic days of the General Session, many bills are passed without adequate review.
Powell’s statement is not news to members of the public who are accustomed to last-minute surprises emanating from Capitol Hill as the session closes, but coming from a legislator it is especially alarming.
Even veteran politicos become frustrated as bills get hung up in committees, are rewritten, passed back and forth between the House and Senate, and then are called up for votes without debate.
In a recent interview, Powell noted that he voted in favor of a bill before he realized the language had been changed. If he had been aware of that fact, he says, he would have changed his vote.
And Powell is not only a veteran at the legislature, he is also a lawyer with loads of experience in reading complicated legalese. Imagine the freshmen representatives or senators who spend most of the year practicing dentistry or tending a dairy ranches. They can’t possibly make fully informed votes on every bill that comes barreling at them in the last week of the session.
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Utah takes pride in having a part-time legislature made up of regular citizens who are, we hope, motivated by a sense of civic duty rather than becoming career politicians. That’s admirable, but offers its own set of challenges, particularly when those regular folks are faced with making hundreds of complex decisions in a 45-day window. The result, too often, is that some of the laws they pass have unintended consequences that do more harm than good.
The rush to judgment also sidelines the public. Many Utahns follow the legislature because they have a passionate interest in a particular issue. Gun laws, public lands, education, gay rights, alcohol rules and land-use regulations were all under intense scrutiny during the most recent session. But late this week, it was almost impossible to follow the latest iterations of those proposed new laws.
Powell is right. The current process needs to be revamped. One solution might be to break the session into two parts – one for introducing bills and one for voting on them, with a reasonable study break in between that would allow legislators to poll their constituents and get a better understanding of the laws themselves.