The 2016 Legislature: Slowing down while speeding up

Legislators introduced 177 bills in the session’s final three weeks.

Despite being limited to only 45 lawmaking days, Utah’s Legislature sure passes a lot of bills–2 to 3 times as many bills per year as Congress. After last year’s record of 528 bills, though, the Legislature put the brakes on just a little this year, passing only 475, a 10% reduction. That’s still a lot of bills, but you’ve got to back 9 session, to the 2009 session, to get fewer; only 450 bills were passed that year. Here’s the chart:

Total bills passed, 2007-2016

So what changed? Let’s pick this apart a bit more.

The more things change…

Not only were there fewer bills, but more of them were ready on day one. Legislators introduced 282 bills on the first day and 376 by the end of the first week. These aren’t records, but it has been 8 years since so many bills were introduced so early. This represents a welcome reversal of an unfortunate trend over the past several years–a trend that saw legislators introducing their bills late in the 45-day session.

Let’s talk about 2008. In a year when 744 bills were considered and 436 bills were passed, most bills (410, or 55% of 744) were introduced during the first week, and nearly all (551, or 74%) had been introduced by the end of the second week. That means legislators in 2008 had the session’s full 45 days to go through all those bills. On average, 16 days passed between a bill’s introduction and its first floor vote. For bills that passed, 29 days passed between introduction and the final floor vote. Keeping in mind that the Utah Constitution limits the Legislature to 45 days, 29 days is a reasonable amount of time for vetting.

But the next few years, two things happened: Legislators began passing more bills, but they also began introducing them later in the session. Combined, these changes created a frantic rush to hurriedly pass hundreds of bills in the session’s final week. The low point came in 2011. Of the 782 bills introduced that year, only one-third had been introduced by the end of the first week, and barely half (52%) had been introduced by the end of the second week. Vetting time dropped as a result. Only 13 days passed between introduction and an average bill’s first floor vote, a 20% reduction from 2008’s 16-day average. For bills that passed, only 26 days passed between introduction and the final vote, a 10% reduction from 2008.

Now, let’s come back to 2016. Legislators introduced 819 bills this year, a tremendously high number that stands second only to last year’s high of 831. But they introduced those bills earlier in the session, allowing for a little more vetting time. Looking at the 475 bills that passed this year, the average bill aged 28 days between introduction and final passage–the longest span we’ve seen since 2008.

For those who see things graphically, here’s a chart showing the number of bills introduced during each session’s first week. The trend is pretty clear.

Bills in First Week, 2007-2016

… the more things stay the same

But. There is always a but.

It is true that legislators got more of their bills out earlier in the session. But because the overall number of bills remains high, there were nevertheless an awful lot of bills introduced very late in the session, leaving little time for deliberation.

Legislators introduced 177 bills in the session’s final three weeks. That’s a 10-year record at least. (My data go back only 10 sessions.) Back in 2007, legislators introduced only 50 bills in the session’s final three weeks, a number that has been rising ever since. Since we’re doing charts, here’s another.

Bills introduced in final three weeks

So what did we see in 2016? Legislators are getting back in the habit of introducing more bills early in the session–but at the same time, they’re also introducing more bills at the tail end of the session. It’s the middle that has dropped out, apparently.

You can find additional statistical tables related to this post at my personal site.

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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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