Did changing the calendar create a major crunch day in the Legislature?

Legislators can either rush bills through the process with minimal debate in order to clear the backlog, or they can take a more methodical pace even if it means some good bills don’t get to come to a vote before midnight.

Today Utah legislators will put in exhausting hours as they race to complete their business before midnight, the constitutionally-mandated end of the annual legislative session. They’ll do so with an immense number of bills left to consider.

There have been 784 bills and resolutions introduced so far during the 2014 session. That number may rise slightly today, but it’s already a substantial increase from the 738 bills as of a couple weeks ago, which was already being declared an all-time high.

Yet the Legislature has passed only 325 bills so far. That doesn’t mean they’ve voted down hundreds of bills; in fact, the Legislature hardly ever votes down a bill (see also here and here). Rather, it means they just haven’t had enough time to process all those bills. Hundreds of bills remain on the docket.

By contrast, here’s how many bills had been passed by the second-to-last day of the session (i.e. yesterday evening) in the past few years:

Year Bills passed by second-to-last day
2009 506
2010 420
2011 449
2012 423
2013 467
2014 325

Let’s look at it another way. The chart below shows the total number of bills passed by day of session. Day of session ranges from 1 through 46. (You’re probably thinking that the Utah Constitution establishes a 45 day session; that’s correct, but with President’s Day thrown in the middle as a non-counted day, that means 46 days pass from start to finish.) We have yet to see how sharply the line for 2014 will rise on the last day; for now, the chart just shows it leveling off.

Total bills passed, day by day

What changed in 2014?

It’s clear that 2014 has lagged all session long. What gives? I can think of two possible explanations.

First, it’s possible that legislators have decided to spend more time considering each bill, allowing bills to spend more time in committee and more time in floor debate before coming to a vote. There has been a trend in recent years toward passing bills faster and faster (see here for analysis and here for raw statistics), so a reversal might indicate more careful vetting before passing legislation.

Second, it might just reflect a calendaring change. In past years, the Legislature would start holding standing committee meetings right at the beginning of the session. Those committees would begin working on bills and reporting them to the floor for votes right away. But that changed this year. Standing committees did not meet until the second week of session. This change allowed appropriations committees to spend more time on the budget during the first week, in hopes that the budget could be finalized earlier in the session than has been the case in the past. But this change may also have put the Legislature far behind schedule on routine bills.

I think the second explanation is more likely than the first. I’ll have data to test my hunch in a couple weeks.

What will the Legislature do today?

With an immense number of bills remaining on the docket, legislators have two choices: Legislators can either rush bills through the process with minimal debate in order to clear the backlog, or they can take a more methodical pace even if it means some good bills don’t get to come to a vote before midnight.

As noted above, the trend in recent years has been toward rushing bills through the process faster and faster, resulting in less and less time for vetting. If the revised legislative calendar has resulted in improved vetting of the budget by appropriations committees, that’s good. But if it results in less careful vetting of routine bills, that might not be good.

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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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