In May, there was a legislative special session that happened to be on the same day my son had a Little League baseball game. The session went a little long, and the drive to Glenmoor Field takes a while during rush hour traffic, so I coached third base wearing a suit that evening. It was the first time most of those involved with the team learned I was their state senator.   

Utah has the shortest annual legislative session of any state at only 45 calendar days. It’s a packed few weeks, but the rest of the year, legislators stay busy with a fairly normal life. We attend Little League baseball games, work in real jobs, shop at Costco on Saturdays and attend church on Sundays. Our lives are spent in our neighborhoods and communities, rubbing shoulders with the people we represent. The laws we pass affect us in the same way they do everyone we represent.

While lawmaking is a full-time job in some other states, Utah is different. The foundation of our system is to get the job done without it being a career that divides representatives from the people we represent. Our constituents have direct, unguarded access to us. It’s one of the things I love about serving.

Our last special session in May is an excellent example. In April, Capt. Matt Hambleton of Utah Fire Authority died after more than 20 years of heroic service as a paramedic, firefighter and captain, with several deployments to out-of-state emergencies, including the World Trade Center in 2001. His untimely death exposed a flaw in state law. 

Five years earlier, a bill was passed changing the law regarding death benefits for the surviving family of firefighters. At that time, a wrinkle in drafting left a gap that would deprive Hambleton’s widow (and potentially others in similar circumstances) of thousands of dollars per month in death benefits she should be entitled to.

I should note that Hambleton’s widow, Monica, isn’t my constituent. I know her from my real job, where I co-own and operate a bakery that buys advertising space from the company where she works. Monica called me and other legislators about this problem only days before the special session was to take place. Her window to file for benefits was closing rapidly. If the Legislature couldn’t fix this in May, the family of a man who dedicated his life to serving his community in a life-threatening job wouldn’t receive the benefits they were promised. However, this issue wasn’t on the list of items to be considered.

But Monica wasn’t alone. Her community of firefighters and first responders rallied and moved the government. For the first time in living memory, a governor issued a revised special session call so that we could honor our commitment to the Hambletons. The Legislature passed the fix unanimously, and Gov. Spencer Cox signed it. Capt. Hambleton’s family will now receive the survivor benefits she and her husband earned.

No one should think that Monica’s story is exceptional. Because of citizens calling their legislators, Utah has mobile driver licenses, the popular new white-on-black license plates, Diwali as a state-recognized holiday and Utahraptor State Park. All these ideas came from one person reaching out to a citizen legislator to recommend an idea, and it became law. 

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While there are legitimate criticisms to levy at Utah’s Legislature, our Constitution and the nature of our part-time Legislature ensure elected representatives deal with similar work, family and life situations as the people we represent.

It is why I could proudly stand in the infield on that May evening with dirt on my dress shoes waving kids around third in my best suit. When one parent learned why I was dressed that way and where I’d been, he expressed his disenchantment. “I just don’t think one person can make a difference,” he lamented.

I understood where he was coming from. After all, he’s a native Californian, one of many states with bloated legislative staffs and full-time legislators spending most of their time away from home in their state Capitol. But having just experienced the entire state government mobilize in a matter of days to help Monica Hambleton, I smiled and replied, “You’d be surprised.”

Sen. Lincoln Fillmore represents Utah Senate District 17.

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