The 2014 Legislature: Slow out of the gate, frantic in the stretch

Clearly, something caused the Legislature to fall behind in its bill processing this year.

Utah legislators introduced 786 bills and resolutions in the 2014 session—fewer than the 800 we saw in 2009, but still higher than usual. However, a procedural change caused legislators to delay action on most of those bills until later in the session than usual. The result may have been an even more hurried process than usual, with even less time than in the past to consider legislation before voting on it.

What changed?

The Utah Constitution requires the Legislature to enact a budget during each year’s legislative session. Budget negotiations typically run late into the night in the final days of the session. Hoping to avoid that last-minute outcome this year, legislative leaders changed the session’s 7-week calendar. They deleted all standing committee hearings from the session’s first week, replacing them with budget hearings.

Of course, it’s the standing committees that consider the Legislature’s hundreds of bills each year. Putting them off for a week meant legislators had only 6 weeks in practice (instead of the usual 7) to consider legislation.

Bills were introduced later

Legislators continued to introduce legislation as early in the session as has been typical in the past few years. In 2014, the average bill was introduced on day 14 of the session. Compare that to day 14.7 in 2013, day 14.1 in 2012, day 15.5 in 2011, and day 12.4 in 2010. (More data.)

But the one-week hiatus on committee hearings apparently caused a bill processing backlog that legislators never overcame. As a result, bills tended to have their first floor vote much later in the session than in the past. Take a look:

Year Average day when bills had their first vote Average day of final passage
2009 25.8 36.1
2010 25.4 36.8
2011 26.8 36.4
2012 26.7 36.4
2013 26.2 36.8
2014 29.6 38.7

From 2009 through 2013, the average bill had its first floor vote on day 26 or 27 (out of 45). This year, we saw a 3 day jump in that average, to day 30.

We also saw a bump in the average bill’s final day of passage. There are 45 days in the session. The average bill passed on day 36 or 37 from 2009 through 2013. This year, that jumped by 2 days, to day 39

The final week was more chaotic

The final two days of the legislative session were particularly crazy this year. Of the 484 bills passed by the Legislature this year, almost half (45%) received their final vote during the session’s final two days. The final two days have always been busy, of course. The table below shows that it’s routine for more than one-third of bills to receive their final vote so late. But this year nevertheless saw a distinct rise.

Year Total bills passed Bills passed in last 2 days % passed in last 2 days
2007 423 153 36%
2008 436 150 34%
2009 518 189 36%
2010 481 168 35%
2011 504 195 39%
2012 478 183 38%
2013 524 203 39%
2014 484 217 45%

Wrapping up

Clearly, something caused the Legislature to fall behind in its bill processing this year. The typical bill had its first vote much later in the session than in the past, and a much larger share of bills than usual received their final approval in the session’s last two days. I worry that legislators found themselves forced to vote on bills that they had not had adequate time to read or discuss.

It seems likely that the revised legislative calendar is the cause. If canceling standing committee hearings had the desired effect of getting the budget done in a more timely manner, without the usual last-minute late-night negotiations, then maybe this was an appropriate trade-off. But if the last week still saw budget negotiations stretching into the session’s final minutes, then maybe revising the calendar wasn’t worth the cost.

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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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