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Jay Evensen: Should Utah’s Legislature meet longer?

SHARE Jay Evensen: Should Utah’s Legislature meet longer?
Lobbyists and members of the public wait outside the House of Representatives on the final day at the 2019 Legislature at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 14, 2019.

Lobbyists and members of the public wait outside the House of Representatives on the final day at the 2019 Legislature at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 14, 2019.

Steve Griffin

SALT LAKE CITY — Here’s a trivia question: How many bills did the Utah Legislature pass in the 45-day annual session that ended last week?

If you said 574, you’re an astute observer.

Now, can you think of 574 things the state had a burning need to put in its code books? Can you think of 100?

I have neighbors who arch their eyebrows when I pass along statistics like these. If you think government conjures up too many ways to bring its mischief to our everyday lives, the thought of 574 bills passing the House and Senate in 45 days can be confirming evidence, especially when you realize lawmakers will pass about that many more next year, too.

These neighbors see the world around them functioning in an orderly manner. Unemployment is low. The roads are decent. Schools may need more money, but what else is new?

They wonder, why not elect a Legislature that is so part time it is on-call, kind of like a volunteer fire department? If we think of some new law we ought to have, we could set off a bell somewhere. Everyone say “aye,” then get back to your jobs.

The irony, of course, is that none of those 574 bills was the one thing leaders in the House and Senate and the governor said they most wanted to pass this year — tax reform. Lawmakers spent most of the session working behind the scenes to get a bill ready, but when they finally put HB441 together, so little time remained in the session that it was politically impossible to pass.

As a result, lawmakers will keep working on reform, with the goal of passing something later this year in a special session, most likely in June.

And this raises the question no one wants to confront — is the 45-day limit on Utah’s yearly legislative session (mandated by Article VI, section 16 of the state constitution) enough?

Before you choke on your breakfast, or whatever you happen to be snacking on at the moment, consider a few things.

Two years ago, the National Conference of State Legislatures examined all states and divided them into five categories. At the top were those with full-time lawmakers and large full-time staffs (California, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania). At the bottom were those with part-time lawmakers who make little money and have small staffs (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming).

Utah was in a category just above this last one. It has what could be termed a citizen Legislature. That is, lawmakers spend most of the year living and working among those who elected them. But its structure is just slightly less spartan than the other four.

But if you look closely, Utah is beginning to separate from the pack. It has the largest population of any state in these two categories. It also ranks among the nation’s fastest-growing states, having grown by nearly 2 percent in the last year. The only faster-growing state in the “citizen legislature” category is Idaho, and its population is more than 1 million less than Utah’s.

Keeping up with growth — and that includes governing important resources such as water, building enough roads and finding ways to clean the air — takes time, expertise and concentrated study.

One danger of a legislature that is too part time is that lawmakers become dependent on the bureaucracy — the professional staff in state departments.

On the other end of the argument, it’s hard to quibble with success.

Wallethub.com this week released two studies that put Utah’s governance in perspective. The first found that Utahns are the sixth-lowest taxed people in the nation. The other found that the state is the fourth-least dependent on the federal government. It’s hard to look around and say the state is suffering because its lawmakers don’t meet more often.

I’m guessing most of you instinctively know what would happen if the annual session were longer. Those 574 bills would turn into 1,000 or more.

Still, it’s inevitable that, as Utah grows, its political leaders will have to grow with it. The next category up in that National Conference of State Legislatures study is a group of states where lawmakers are part time but spend about the equivalent of two-thirds of a full-time job doing the public’s business.

Utah already is larger than some of those states. If tax reform is a harbinger, creeping up the ladder may be inevitable, and that on-call Legislature an even more distant dream.