The 2024 legislative session adjourned a month ago. But the results and even the process continue to be scrutinized and debated. This is another indication of the tremendous impact our part-time lawmakers have on government, politics and our culture. So, we can’t resist commenting.

An enduring criticism of the Utah legislative process is the rising amount of legislation considered each year. Gov. Spencer Cox, in a letter accompanying notice of his seven vetoes, expressed concern about the record number of bills passed this year (591, plus many resolutions). Cox said some of the legislation, including the items he rejected, could have been handled through simpler means — sometimes by just sending an email or making a phone call to the executive branch. This is not a new concern, as there has been a 60% increase in bills passed in the last 20 years. Is this a real problem that threatens quality of our lawmaking process?

Pignanelli: The world is not going to be saved by legislation.” — William Howard Taft

Political observations can be a kaleidoscope — a small twist and a different outlook appears. The U.S. Congress employs thousands to help 535 full-time lawmakers pass a yearly average of 300 bills (only 42 in 2023). 104 part-time Utah legislators, with less than 100 staff, pass an average of 500 bills in 45 days. Indeed, while deliberating a thousand legislative proposals, lawmakers handle tough issues with public input and balance the budget. The national legislature is appropriately criticized as dysfunctional while our local solons are amazingly efficient.

Yet, increasing legislative loads will eventually cause less deliberation. The solution is unclear. Limiting bill files will not reduce policy concerns. Legislators will just combine issues into giant omnibus bills (like Congress), thereby creating complexity for citizens. This also constrains the voice of constituents.

Decades ago, this newspaper conducted an annual analysis of legislators’ effectiveness based upon bill passage percentages. Opponents often utilized low rankings in campaigns against incumbents. This was an active external pressure.

The best answer is legislative leadership encouraging caucuses to prioritize what is important and urgent. Many concerns are often resolved over time and (as the governor observed) usually with a phone call. Only a slight kaleidoscope twist is needed.

Webb: Big picture, Utah’s Legislature does a great job. We need to remember that many bills are minor technical corrections. Some bills repeal old laws. The important bills usually receive plenty of scrutiny. Utah’s 104 lawmakers each receive many requests to sponsor bills and be responsive to constituents.

This is not yet a big problem. The Utah legislative process is 1,000 times more effective than what happens in the federal Congress. In Washington, many of the lengthiest (thousands of pages) and most important bills, including budget bills, are held back with only a handful of people working on them, and then hit the floor and must be passed very quickly. That’s a terrible way to make laws impacting the entire country.

In Utah, all legislators serve on an appropriations subcommittee. All budgets are scrutinized and considered over several weeks. Budgets are balanced. Debt is very low.

Congress has many failures. But perhaps the biggest one is that, while it doesn’t pass many laws itself, it allows presidential executive orders and federal agencies to, in effect, make thousands of laws that impact our daily lives. Congress didn’t pass bills shutting down coal plants or eliminating gas-powered vehicles over the next several years. But the president and his federal agencies are doing those things in the absence of congressional oversight and action. Congress may not get anything done, but unelected bureaucrats in federal agencies are very, very busy!

Thankfully, Utah’s Legislature effectively keep watch over state agency regulatory authority.

Which leads me to my usual conclusion: We desperately need more of the government decisions that impact our lives to be made at state and local levels instead of at the badly broken federal level.

As our state continues to grow and thrive, does the current structure of a part-time legislature, with a constitutionally-mandated 45-day session, need to be adjusted?

Pignanelli: A part time status keeps lawmakers connected to their constituents and in-tune with state needs. But interim committee hearings should be revamped to further help with the massive load on the General Session.

Webb: We should never lose our lay Legislature. Forty-five days is very short, but it’s working well for now.

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Comments

The Utah Legislature is consistently criticized by right- and left-wing special interest groups, the media, average citizens and others. Are the multitude of complaints justified or are lawmakers just a misunderstood lot?

Pignanelli: All 104 lawmakers serve for the right reason — they care about their communities. Bills that garner negative attention are often defeated or significantly amended. The state is succeeding because of longtime commitment by legislators to competent governance. Many commentators often ignore these elements.

Webb: In every session, any sentient person can find something to disagree with — me included. Even legislators themselves don’t like all the legislative results. That’s the way a representative democracy works. Utah’s Legislature is unapologetically conservative. Speaking as a mainstream Utah conservative myself, that’s good.

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.

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