Context for Sen. Osmond’s proposed rules changes

Bills were introduced later and passed faster in 2012. It seems Sen. Osmond wants to reverse this trend.

The news reports that Sen. Aaron Osmond wants to change the legislature’s rules to ban so-called “boxcar” bills, thereby increasing transparency in the legislative process. I’ve posted research here before that might be relevant to this proposal. First, though, some context.

What he’s proposing

The Utah Legislature has several hoops it must jump through to enact a new proposal into law. Some are based in Utah’s Constitution; those cannot be changed without an amendment. Others are based in legislative rules, which the Legislature adopts through its standard legislative process, and which the Legislature can change (or suspend) at any time. We’re talking about the latter type of rule.

Currently, legislative rules require legislators to announce all their bills within the first two weeks of the seven-week legislative session. Beginning work on a new bill after this deadline requires a legislative vote to grant permission for an exception.

To get around this rule, legislators often prepare “boxcar” bills. A “boxcar” bill has a generic title (like “Tax code amendments”) without any content at all. Like an empty boxcar on a train, a boxcar bill can be filled with whatever the legislator wants later on. So you number a boxcar bill before the deadline, then wait until later to fill in the details.

Sen. Osmond wants to require all bills to have not only a title but also a summary of their contents before the deadline. Moreover, he wants to move the deadline up by four weeks, to two weeks before the legislative session starts. (To handle unforeseen circumstances, his reform would still allow legislators to request permission on the floor to open a new bill file after the deadline had passed.)

Some research that might be relevant

In recent years, legislators have moved toward introducing their bills later and then pushing them through the legislative process more quickly. In 2008, 44% of bills were written and introduced on the first day of the session; in 2012, only 28% of bills were ready on day 1. That’s a steep decline. We also see it in other metrics:

  • In 2007 and 2008, 74% of bills had been introduced within the first two weeks of the session. In 2011, it was down to 52%, where it roughly remained (at 56%) in 2012.
  • In 2007, only 10% of bills were held until the last two weeks of the session. By 2011, that had climbed to 24%; it remained similar (21%) in 2012.
  • In 2007, an average bill spent 17.9 days going through the legislative process. (That’s the number of days between its introduction and its final vote.) By 2011, that had fallen by almost 5 days, to 13.1; it remained at a similar level (13.6 days) in 2012.

You can find additional statistics along these lines in a previous post: Bills were introduced later and passed faster in 2012. It seems Sen. Osmond wants to reverse this trend.

The Legislature processes an incredible number of bills during each session. Although it meets only 7 weeks each year, it passes far more bills than Congress, which meets year-round. No wonder that the Legislature sometimes acts so quickly handling a particular bill (like this one) that it lacks time to perceive potential problems. I suppose that’s why Sen. Osmond has proposed this reform.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an associate 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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