That the Utah Legislature has again broken its record for the most bills filed in a single session raises the question of whether the lawmaking process is built to favor quantity over quality. While it’s a philosophical question as much as a pragmatic one, we would argue that bill inflation is detrimental if it means a burgeoning workload is making it harder for important matters of public policy to receive adequate debate, analysis and opportunity for public input.
This year, the Legislature will consider at least 1,341 separate bills, which allows for about 10 minutes to be dedicated to each bill, given how many hours the House and Senate are actually convened during the 45-day session. All bills are not created equally, and substantive measures will obviously garner much more time and attention. But that means some measures — perhaps the lion’s share — will be dispatched without any significant time being invested in committee hearings or on the floor to determine their fate.
Those concerned about the rising number of proposed bills complain the volume of measures tends to clog the process and does indeed affect the amount of attention that can be devoted to important issues. There is also the ideological conundrum faced by those who favor smaller government but vote to add hundreds of new laws to the books each year. On the other side, some lawmakers argue the annual session is an important funnel in the democratic process that allows for the concerns of all constituents to be formally addressed by policy or law. Restricting the number of bills that could come before the body would be tantamount to restricting speech, in their view.
Regardless, it seems to be a fact of parliamentary nature that bill filings will push the limits of whatever boundaries are set. National data show that the longer a state legislature meets, the more bills it will consider, regardless of the size of the state. In Colorado, for example, the Legislature meets for 120 days each year, and each year there are complaints it’s not long enough. Last year, Colorado lawmakers, under pressure to meet deadlines, tackled 100 separate bills on the final day of the session. In New York, the state Assembly and Senate are in session year-round and will typically consider upwards of 12,000 new bills. But only about 10 percent of those become law. In Utah, more than half of all bills introduced will be passed.
The question is whether the ratio of bills filed to bills passed is a measure of legislative efficiency or a lack of legislative restraint. A high number of annual bill filings means that many measures will be relegated to quick review during leadership meetings or caucus sessions, often held outside public view. If a measure is important enough to earn a bill number, it should receive sufficient public vetting.1 comment on this story
Lawmakers might get credit in their districts for the number of bills they file or even for how many of their bills get passed. True effectiveness, however, should be gauged by how their bills positively impact the people they represent. Legislators have an obligation to ensure that important measures receive adequate airing and attention. There will always be those ceremonial matters of recognition for different groups, days of the year, institutions, etc., that deserve their time in the legislative sun. But the process works best when matters of high importance — and there are a lot of them every year — can receive careful, thoughtful and meaningful consideration and debate in full public view before they come to a final vote.
Lawmakers should reduce the quantity and sharpen the focus of proposed legislation.