Lawmakers want rules changed to increase public input on bills

Published: Friday, Jan. 11 2013 5:30 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers are being asked to change some long-standing rules that can be used to keep legislation under wraps. But that might be a hard sell.

Both Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, and Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said their proposals will help the public stay on top of what’s going on during the Legislature.

Powell wants to put an end to “protected” bills that stay private until partway through the session. And Osmond said it’s time to do away with so-called “boxcar” bill files that have titles but no content.

“I just think it makes for a much better process,” Powell said. “At least people are able to investigate and ask questions. It starts a very important public dialog.”

Boxcar bills are usually used as placeholders in case the need for last-minute legislation surfaces after the deadline for requests has passed. Osmond said such bills keep the public in the dark.

Both Powell and Osmond said they’re concerned about bills that surface so late in the session that the public has little opportunity to have a say. Powell believes any bills that have not been heard in both the House and the Senate should need a two-thirds supermajority to pass.

Osmond wants to see all bills filed at least two weeks prior to the start of the session to ensure there’s plenty of time for them to be reviewed by the public. He said that might have prevented the uproar two years ago over a bill seen as scrapping the state’s open records law. Amid repeated public protests, the bill was repealed in a special session.

“A lot of the frustration and the fear and doubt that was created by that bill would have been removed because there would have been plenty of time for debate,” Osmond said.

But Senate Rules Committee Chairman John Valentine, R-Orem, said both protected and boxcar bills have their uses. For example, Valentine said he has a protected bill dealing with the touchy issue of campaign finance.

"I need to sit down and negotiate with my colleagues, Valentine said. "If they come on board with it, I'll make it public." If they say "no, no, no," though, he said hed give up on the bill so the details of his proposal will never be public."

Valentine said he took a similar route with liquor legislation in recent years, including a bill doing away with private clubs that remained protected through months of discussions with a variety of stakeholders.

He said there will always be a need for introducing new legislation late in the session. The alternative to boxcar bills is getting support from either the House or the Senate to open a bill file.

“Anybody who’s been up there any length of time will tell you there’s no way to anticipate all the needs,” Valentine said. With a boxcar bill, he said, the public at least has something to watch.

Valentine wants to hold a special rules committee meeting before the Jan. 28 start of the 2013 Legislature to talk about the proposed changes. Both are likely to be discussed in party caucuses, too.

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com

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