Sitting on the deep green plushy seats in the House gallery on one of my first days of the 2019 session, I remember coming to the Capitol as a child and how extravagant that room seemed at the time. I hear a Representative request a “personal privilege” from the Speaker, which is then granted. My ears perk up a bit between the hum-drum chatter of the room because I have no idea what that phrase could mean. The Representative begins talking about an elementary school in his district and from across the gallery I see a group of second graders literally bouncing in their seats from surprise and excitement as they are asked to stand and be recognized. The ear-to-ear smiles of the teachers match the smiles of the students, as the gallery and Representatives cheer their presence.
I can’t help but smile along with their excitement, thinking how wonderful it is that the legislative body would do such a thing. However, within my first week, I quickly realize this process is a common trend as dozens of groups and individuals are recognized through personal privileges from legislators. Sometimes, those being recognized are no longer in the gallery as a Representative calls on them to stand and we all clap for people who aren’t there. Often these personal privileges occur in a chain of Representatives calling on those in the gallery and I noticed it taking more than 5 minutes of floor time. After one particularly long recognition, on a day full of them, I decided someone needed to be tracking how much time was being spent on this process. I spent the next month, from Monday, February 11th until Monday, March 11th, doing just that, and the results were shocking.
Even as an increasingly large number of bills and resolutions are going through the Legislature (in 2019, a record 573 bills passed), less and less time is left for actual floor debate, discussion, and compromise.. This recognition of special groups and individuals: students, teachers, law enforcement officers, past legislators, and notable members of the Utah community, to name a few, takes essential time away from discussion and debate on the House and Senate floors, further straining our short 45-day sessions. Over the course of the month I tracked in the House, between the time it took to actually start the meeting and finish all the personal privileges and applause, 325 minutes were spent during floor time not achieving any floor work. That translates to 5.42 hours of time spent in just a month not doing legislative work, and over 2.5 of those hours were spent just recognizing special groups.
As nice as the recognition is–cheerful, moving, sometimes hilarious–and as much as I feel like the Grinch for saying this, it is not what our legislators are there for. There are other ways for these groups to be recognized at the Capitol: perhaps a specific time could be allotted for this recognition before or after floor sessions so as to not divert from the legislative work that so desperately needs to be done. These recognitions hinder the work of our elected representatives during floor time. According to Utah Data Points, the median time spent on a bill in 2018 was only seven minutes total on the floor before passage. Seven minutes on the floor to make decisions that impact nearly every aspect of Utahns’ lives. A little more time could be spent making these decisions if personal privilege recognitions were scheduled for some other time. The number of bills passed per year has grown 23% from 2009 to 2018, the median floor time per bill has declined in that time frame from over 13 minutes to 7 minutes. Precious floor time should not be spent on these recognitions.
During this session in particular, public comment on the most controversial bills was extremely limited. Thinking holistically about the process, more time needs to be allotted to important and controversial bills. The majority of this process shouldn’t have to occur behind closed doors, and the public portion of the process shouldn’t be cut down during committee. The work of the people should be accessible and carried out in full view of the people. Important bills deserve more than 7 minutes of floor time to be properly considered. Wasting 5.4 hours of time each month not doing legislative work on the floor is simply unacceptable.
Kelcy Brock is a Better Utah legislative intern.