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Some lawmakers pay out of pocket for help

This photo from Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 shows representatives on the floor of the Utah House of Representatives at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City.
This photo from Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 shows representatives on the floor of the Utah House of Representatives at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City.
Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers convene for a whirlwind, 45-day legislative session each year to churn through hundreds of pieces of legislation.

The session is among the shortest in the country, and Utah lawmakers like it that way.

But for the past two years, some House Republicans say they've been so overwhelmed by the amount of bills coming before them in a short period of time that they've dug into their own pockets to hire extra help.

Since 2012, about a dozen lawmakers have been pooling personal and campaign dollars in a political action committee, raising between $3,000 and $4,000. That money is used to hire a college student or recent graduate to monitor pending legislation and reach out to interest groups each session.

But the solicitation of contributions to the PAC is drawing scrutiny.

Rep. Derek Brown, R-Cottonwood Heights, is one of the lawmakers behind the idea, which he says stems from frustrations he and other lawmakers had in their freshman year with the limited time they had to consider bills, especially in the final days before adjourning.

In the final three or four days, "we have hundreds of bills that come over to us in the House which we've never had a chance to have a hearing on," Brown said. "Literally, it may be the first time any of us have had a chance to see this bill."

When lawmakers introduce more than 700 bills and pass more than 500 bills, as they did this year, individual legislators can't read them all, Brown said.

"We found it very frustrating that we had to make snap decisions on bills that we necessarily hadn't had a chance to even vet," he said.

The group highlights bills they think may be complicated or contentious and are likely to come up for a vote. They then dispatch the research assistant to gather information on the proposal and reach out to interest groups.

The extra help allows them to dig in deeper when there's too many bills and too little time, said David Butterfield, a former legislator who helped start the group.

"We wanted to make sure that we were making informed decisions, and we were aware of all the consequences, good and bad, of potential legislation," Butterfield said.

All lawmakers can get assistance from interns or analysis from nonpartisan staff to let them know how much bills could cost or whether they will draw lawsuits, but those resources are stretched very thin, Butterfield said.

For years, Utah lawmakers have discussed the possibility of changing the system to alleviate some of the crunch, such as adding more days to the session or capping the number of bills, but, ultimately, they have been resistant.

The shorter the session, the easier it is for Utah to have a part-time, citizen legislature comprised of lawmakers with real-world jobs, some legislators say.

"The longer legislatures are in session, I think the more damage they do," Butterfield said.

Lawmakers participating in the PAC were asked to contribute $250, but some gave more, such as Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, who kicked in $1,250 this year.

Nielson said he participated in the group not because he had concerns about the time crunch, but because he wanted an opportunity to hear the extra perspectives the group was bringing in.

Nielson says lawmakers collected the money in a political action committee to keep it transparent, which also brought scrutiny to the project.

A recent report appears to show the group soliciting $1,975 of the contributions while lawmakers were in session this year, which could be a violation of state election law.

Mark Thomas, Utah's director of elections, says his office is investigating whether there was any violation. If it's determined there was a violation, his office has the option of issuing a warning to the group with fines up to $1,000 or recommending the attorney general's office file misdemeanor charges.

Lawmakers involved in the PAC say there was no wrongdoing. But because of the scrutiny, Nielson said he wants to shut it down next year

"It was an attempt to be totally transparent," Nielson said. "I think it's totally above board and that's why we did it that way."