Bills were introduced later, passed faster in 2012 session

In 2008, 44% of bills were introduced on day 1. In 2012, only 28% were introduced on day 1.

Now that the 2012 session of the Utah legislature has wrapped up, what can we observe?

For one thing, it appears that the legislature spent less time vetting bills than has been the case in other recent years. We see this in two ways. First, fewer bills are ready to go when the legislative session begins. Second, bills are rushed through the committee process more quickly than used to be the case. Let’s look at each point.

Introducing bills later

Because Utah’s Constitution gives the legislature only 45 days each year to consider new legislation, it has traditionally been the norm for legislators to work on their bills during the interim (summer) months. Then, when the legislative session opens, legislators can introduce a bill that they have spent months preparing and discussing with people.

In 2011 and 2012, we’ve seen a shift away from that norm. Fewer bills are ready to go on day 1. In 2008, 44% of bills were introduced on day 1. In 2012, only 28% were introduced on day 1. That’s a huge decline.

This table gives a bit more detail. You can see that the big decline happened mostly in 2010 and 2011, with 2012 representing a continuation of 2011’s showing. Fewer bills are ready on day 1. What’s more, fewer are ready within the first two weeks of the seven-week session.

Total number of bills introduced % of bills introduced on first day % of bills introduced in first two weeks
2007 733 40% 74%
2008 744 44% 74%
2009 800 35% 71%
2010 713 32% 63%
2011 782 24% 52%
2012 765 28% 56%

The flip side of this is that more bills are being introduced at the tail end of the seven-week session. In 2007 and 2008, only one in ten bills was introduced during the last three weeks. In 2011 and 2012, one in five bills was introduced during the last three weeks. Here are the data:

% of bills introduced in last three weeks
2007 10%
2008 11%
2009 13%
2010 17%
2011 24%
2012 21%

If bills are introduced later, that means there will be less time to vet them thoroughly before passing them.

Rushing bills through committee

After a bill is introduced, it must be approved by a committee before coming to the floor. Given the sheer number of bills that make it to the floor, committees play a critical role in vetting bills. There just isn’t enough time to have a full debate of every bill on the floor. That has to happen in committee.

To their credit, legislative committees routinely refer bills to interim hearings if they do not feel they can adequately consider a bill before the session ends. Still, there is some evidence that committees have rushed bills through in recent years.

This table shows the average “age” of a bill at the time of its first floor vote. That is, how many days pass between the bill’s introduction and its first floor action. (Any committee action will have concluded before the first floor vote.)

Average age of bill at time of first vote
2007 17.9
2008 15.9
2009 16.1
2010 14.4
2011 13.1
2012 13.6

In 2007, typical bills spent 17.9 days–two and a half weeks–between introduction and floor action. In 2012, they spent 4.3 days fewer, on average. Two weeks is plenty of time for a committee hearing, but this is still a noteworthy decline.

What does it mean?

It might not mean anything. These numbers do not prove that the legislature vets bills less carefully than it used to. All that these numbers show is that the legislature has less time for vetting than it used to. Maybe there were inefficiencies in the process 5 years ago that have been rooted out. That’s certainly possible.

If these numbers do indicate less vetting, then legislators may want to consider the consequences. The outcry over HB477 last year (the GRAMA reform) probably could have been avoided if the bill had been given more time for public scrutiny. This year’s GRAMA reform attracted few (if any) complaints, because legislators took their time on it. Spending more time on bills helps legislators avoid casting votes that they may later regret.

Note that this post is an update to something I wrote on the first day of the legislative session, when I first noticed the decline in bills being introduced on day 1.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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6 Responses to Bills were introduced later, passed faster in 2012 session

  1. utah_1 says:

    I had 4 bills ready on day one for committee. Two were put on the agenda and 2 were not. One was held for over 4 weeks, but was heard and voted on. One was in rules for 3 weeks and then sent to a committee and held until after the committees were done hearing.

    If you spend a year or more working on a bill and it doesn’t help you get the bill through, what is the incentive?

    • Adam Brown says:

      Great point. Not every bill that’s ready on day 1 will pass. Of course, waiting until later to start working on the bill probably won’t raise the odds, either.

  2. utah_1 says:

    Typo. HB 477 vs HB 479

  3. Joel Dare says:

    Adam,

    Do you know of a place where they list bills as they are introduced? I’d like to setup WebWatch (or something similar) to get a list of every single bill that is being introduced so that I can email my representative on each. I can find lists of “passed bills” but not newly introduced ones. Almost feels like someone doesn’t want us to look at all of these; at least not easily.

    Joel

    • Adam Brown says:

      Re “Almost feels like someone doesn’t want us to look at all of these; at least not easily.” To the contrary. Check out some of the legislative websites used in other states. Utah’s legislative website isn’t perfect, but it’s phenomenonally good.

      Still, it’s designed more for human use than for bot scraping. It’s a real job for me to scrape all the bills into my database after each session.

      The reason you’re not seeing bills as they’re introduced is that the legislature is not in session right now. There aren’t any bills being introduced. But if you check the website during the session, you can see which bills are on the committee agendas and on the reading calendars (i.e. coming up for floor debate) with minimal difficulty.

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