Secret bills threaten transparency in Utah

There is a saying that is often used about lawmaking–“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”

While we may not want to watch, it is important for Utahns to pay close attention to the sausage making that takes place on our own Capitol Hill.

Our legislative process is actually pretty straightforward. A legislator works with legislative researchers to write a bill, the bill is posted publicly and then presented to a committee where the public can speak for or against it. The bill is then debated on the floor of the House and Senate. If it makes it all the way through the process it goes to the Governor who signs it into law.

A bill must go through all these steps, but bills are becoming less and less transparent as they wind their way through the process.

Our legislators have two methods to keep a bill hidden from us.

First, a legislator can draft a bill but instead of making it public, they can keep its contents secret by “protecting” it. This bill is then brought out very late in the session for the express purpose of rushing it through the process–giving it a quick committee hearing–often making it public and scheduling it on a committee agenda only 24 hours prior (as the law requires), and bringing it to the top of the list for floor debate.

Second, is through boxcar bills. At a certain point in the session all bills must be named and numbered, even if they don’t yet have content–these are called boxcar bills. The bills are given very innocuous names like “government amendments” or “compliance updates.” Names that do not give any idea of the actual intent of the bill. A legislator can wait until late in the session, put content in the bill, slip it quietly into the process and hope the public doesn’t pay close enough attention.

Despite arguments against these methods of shielding legislation from public view they appear to be growing in popularity—at least among the legislators.

According to UtahPolicy, so far, for the upcoming legislative session, there have been 423 bill files opened, only 160 openly listed. That means 263 bills, or 62%, are already protected. There will be many more bill files opened before the beginning of the session next January, but if this trend holds true it does not bode well for an open and transparent legislative session.

Vote by mail just started, early voting begins in a couple weeks, and election day is November 4th. We are heading to the polls right now to choose our legislative representation. Now is the time to let these candidates know we expect them to be open and honest about their intentions, and that we want all bills made public.

Let’s let them know that this year, we intend to watch them make the sausage.

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