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Utah's House home to its most freshmen in 2 decades

By Annie Knox

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 9 2013 11:24 a.m. MST

In this Friday, Feb. 8, 2013 photo, minority leader, Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake, sits at her desk on the floor of the Utah House of Representatives in Salt Lake City. Men vastly outnumber women in Utah's House and Senate. Half of the state is female, but fewer than one in five legislators are women. And no women in Utah hold a statewide or congressional office. Nationally, the Utah legislature ranks behind all but four states for its percentage of women. Now, lawmakers and others are working to change that by recruiting female candidates. A Utah group is holding training sessions for women who want to run for office and urging them to fill seats on boards and commissions. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Associated Press

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SALT LAKE CITY — When to speak up. Whom to trust. How the system works.

Those are a few lessons freshman lawmakers learn in their first session or two at the Utah capitol.

This year, the lesson is a common one, since 1 in 4 representatives in the Utah House is new. This year's class of freshman in the House is higher than the past two decades.

The first year presents steep hurdles that come up quickly for new members during Utah's 45-day session, among the shortest in the country.

"I've described the learning curve as a straight-up wall," said Rep. Dana Layton, a Republican from Orem. "It's like rock climbing."

An early challenge, she said, was to memorize the names of about 100 legislators and the areas they represent. Learning how to deal with lobbyists and reporters came next.

Veteran lawmakers praise the new class for their energy and willingness to learn. But some say the inexperience of newer lawmakers has slowed the process, putting a crunch on the legislature as it nears the end of its session. It adjourns Thursday.

This year's freshman class of representatives is the biggest since 1993, according to research from Brigham Young University political science department. At the end of their first month at the capitol, legislators had introduced about 600 bills — fewer than any other class of lawmakers at that point in the past decade.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, a Republican from Sandy, credits the influx of freshmen for that delay. For the first time, he expects attorneys to run out of time to draft bills. "Having so many freshmen, I think that's the reason why a lot of this came in so late," he said.

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said she expected the crunch because freshmen typically file their bills late in the session.

Layton, the Republican from Orem, said "it's natural not to come in like a raging bull." She spoke up to ask questions, she said, but took care not to come across as aggressive. "You don't want to be that person who everyone rolls their eyes at and says, 'Oh, not her again,'" she said.

Adam Brown, a political scientist at Brigham Young University, said some freshmen have served in local offices and know the finer points of legislative procedure. But many must take several weeks to learn the basics, from introducing bills to debating them.

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, is among the 20 new lawmakers in the 75-member Utah House. She began her career as a legislative intern for former Rep. Pete Suazo, where she says she learned the details and hang-ups of the legislative process.

But holding office has taught her all the effort that goes behind legislation, she said, including negotiating across the aisle. "I have a deeper respect for the process now."

One key take-away from this session: Expect your bill to transform in committees and the House. That, she said, has taught her to start working now on her top priorities for next year's session.

Freshman Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, said he took away helpful tips from Friday lunches hosted by House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo. Lockhart advises Kennedy and other new lawmakers how to shepherd their bills through committees and about how to speak carefully during testimony.

"It's actually surprising," Kennedy said of veteran lawmakers' openness toward new members. "No backstabbing or shenanigans."

More seasoned lawmakers acknowledge that they haze newcomers just a little, teasing them by voting a preliminary "no" when a first-time lawmaker presents a bill. They then switch that dial to green right before the vote count.

The surge in new faces has its advantages, said Ray, who has served as a representative since 2004.

"The fun part for me is when we debate a bill and I'm going head-to-head against a freshman," said Ray. "If you know the procedure, you're going to win. And I've been able to set them up, let them make the move and then chop them down."

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