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Opinion: Tips for freshman legislators from one who’s been there

The Utah legislature will have 20 new legislators — here are some tips for their first session

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The House chamber is pictured at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on March 19, 2021.

The House chamber is pictured at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on March 19, 2021.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

When the legislative session begins there will be 20 new legislators — approximately one-fifth of the entire body. When I joined the legislature 11 years ago, I was a mid-term vacancy replacement who was sworn in one week after the session started. Even though I had been an activist for a decade, I learned a whole lot as a freshman. 

To those of you who are new this session, here are my top 10 tips for your first session:

You don’t know everything — and, you can’t possibly know it all. The legislature deals with a broad array of issues; find people who know more about specific topics and learn from them. I found it particularly useful to ask whose voices were missing from the discussion. You’ll have a more complete understanding of how policy impacts Utahns especially if you listen to people whose life experiences differ from your own.

Listen and learn. No matter how much you know going in, there will be much still to learn, about people, process, policies and yes, politics.

You know enough to be there. Your life experiences are valuable and will give you insight into policy making. Speak up and share as appropriate. And, don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you have a question, you can be sure other legislator do too. 

Know the magic numbers: 38-15-1. Your bill needs 38 votes in the House, 15 in the Senate and a signature from the Governor. Even if your bill is the most amazing bill ever, if your colleagues aren’t on board, it will go nowhere. You need to build coalitions.

Never burn bridges. The person who is a no vote today may be a yes vote tomorrow — or next year — if you keep the long view in mind. 

Have a solid circle of friends and family who will keep you grounded. You are neither as brilliant as the lobbyists tell you, nor as awful as the emails and letters you will receive may tell you.

Take care of your health as much as possible. Almost everyone gets sick during or right after the session — the hotter and more controversial the session, the earlier that happens. 

Give yourself some downtime when the session ends. It’s easy to think you’ll be able to go right back to “normal life,” but you and your loved ones need at least a little bit of time to decompress. 

Do everything you can to stay in touch with your constituents. Social media, newsletters, town halls, breakfast meetings — after all — they are the reason you are there. 

Legislators from the other party and the other body are not your “enemies.” Most bills pass unanimously, and at the end of the day, you all have a common goal: To do what’s best for Utah and her residents. 

Finally, while legislating is serious business, keep a sense of humor. A dour, grumpy legislator is no fun to work with. Good luck!

Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy and a former member of the Utah House of Representatives.