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Opinion: Bills usually get 2-4 minutes of floor time before passage — is this a flaw or efficiency?

Utah introduced and passed a record number of bills this year while also managing to spend less time in session

SHARE Opinion: Bills usually get 2-4 minutes of floor time before passage — is this a flaw or efficiency?
Bills in varying stages of progress are displayed on a video board at the Capitol in Salt Lake City in this photograph made with a slow shutter speed.

Bills in varying stages of progress are displayed on a video board at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023, in this photograph made with a slow shutter speed. Utah introduced and passed a record number of bills this year while also managing to spend less time in session.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Sports enthusiasts love compiling and analyzing various metrics to highlight successes and challenges of players and teams. Political hacks possess a similar affection to “geek out” over statistics. BYU professor Adam Brown developed a website that is a politico’s dream. He provides historical context to his valuable statistical insights. Especially pertinent is the annual review of the Utah Legislature, which includes rankings and trends. Your nerdy columnists provide our perspective on this treasure trove.

Brown provides fascinating data. 2023 was a record year for bills introduced (929) and bills passed (535). Conversely, this session featured the lowest amount of time lawmakers spent on the floor of each chamber debating bills (65 hours). The median enacted bill received two to four minutes of floor discussion before passage. The net result was more bills and less time debating. Do these numbers imply a need for reform or explain a very efficient mechanism of lawmaking?

Pignanelli: “It is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics.” — George Bernard Shaw 

For almost four decades, I arrived at the Capitol every day of the legislative session dressed in suit and tie to demonstrate my respect for the institution. These numbers validate my admiration.

Some observers complain that lawmakers spend too little time deliberating as a full body in their respective chambers. Such criticism reveals ignorance of the legislative process. While floor debates are important, they are not the center of lawmaking. Instead, public policy is slowly advanced when legislators meet with constituents, various organizations, lobbyists, staff and colleagues.

The Legislature has a robust website allowing the public to follow and participate in proceedings. This is another avenue for lawmakers to interact with citizens and understand their concerns. Moreover, the activities surrounding committee hearings is when the real statecraft is developed. Listening to speeches is the least valuable role of our local solons.

After reviewing Dr. Brown’s analysis, I am ordering another suit in recognition of a strong season.

Webb: Critics and cynics can complain about the limited amount of floor time spent debating each bill. But the reality shows less cause for concern. Important bills and those creating controversy are reviewed and debated thoroughly.

The lawmaking process ensures that most bills are scrutinized in committees before floor debate. Many key bills are also discussed and vetted during monthly interim meetings between sessions. Most consequential bills also receive attention from lawmakers, bill drafters, the news media, lobbyists, interest groups and citizens impacted even before being introduced. Also, many bills are noncontroversial “housekeeping” measures that don’t require lengthy debate.

Thus, despite moving through the floor process quickly, most bills do receive adequate debate and scrutiny before passage.

But efficiency also has something to do with it. Over many years, the Utah Legislature has created an effective, efficient process that allows both legislation and the state budget to be thoroughly vetted before final passage. This allows legislative sessions to be short and our legislators to be part-time, citizen lawmakers who hold jobs and are impacted by the laws they pass. 

Only 14% of House votes and 9% of Senate votes were made along party lines. The average percentage of legislators on the “winning side” was 95%. At least 80% of the votes were near unanimous. 67% of bills passed were sponsored by Republicans and 34% by Democrats. What does this imply about partisanship?

Pignanelli: The minority party provides a critical, substantive voice as the loyal opposition, while engendering respect. This explains why they pass legislation at a higher rate than their membership of 20%. Alignment with Republicans on most bills suggest they view lawmaking as a purposeful activity devoid of unnecessary rancor. Further, I witnessed on several occasions committee chairmen who temporarily handed the reigns over to Democrats with no hesitation. This is a noteworthy expression.

Webb: These statistics again show that most legislation passed by the Legislature is nonpartisan and noncontroversial. The numbers also show the minority party punches well above its weight. Democrats make up only 19% of the House and 21% of the Senate, so to have passed 34% of bills shows Democrats are relevant and effective. Of course, when members of the two parties differ, when the majority party wants to get something done, the Democrats get steamrolled. If they want to win those big battles, they need to get more Democrats elected.

Overall, does the Utah Legislature perform the important functions of public policy development and display the traits of an effective representative democracy?

Pignanelli: The Utah Legislature is a very human enterprise filled with successes, frustrations, enlightenment and obnoxiousness. Critics forget they usually represent the sentiments of who sent them to the Capitol. Every lawmaker is dedicated to serve their community and the state. This mission is reaffirmed by citizen participation in proceedings and accessing representatives. Democracy is always messy but this institution works well.

Webb: The political system functions well at state and local levels in Utah — which is precisely why the federal government ought to stop trying to run every aspect of our lives, from cradle to grave. State and local levels can provide better governance on matters other than those constitutionally delegated to the national government.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semi-retired small farmer and political consultant. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.