By Ronald Mortensen / Mar 27, 2017 / Columnist at Utah Standard News
Utah State Legislature – Ready, Fire, Aim
The Utah State Legislature prides itself on its ability to pass more than 500 bills during its 45 day session.
In order to speed up the process, members of legislative committees are frequently heard to say, “This bill isn’t perfect but we’re going to pass it out with the understanding that it will be fixed before it gets to the floor.” On the floor of the House and Senate, legislators can often be heard to say, “This bill isn’t perfect but let’s pass it now and we will fix any problems during next year’s session.
Further adding to the number of bad bills that make it through the legislature is the fact that the time spent on debating a bill on the floor of the House or the Senate is all-too-often in inverse proportion to the importance of the bill being discussed.
During the first several weeks of the legislature session, minor bills are subjected to interminable debate by the House and the Senate. As the clock winds down, the time for debate on each bill is sharply reduced, committee hearings of bills by both House and Senate committees are no longer required and the Senate even gets rid of its second and third reading requirements by suspending the rules and passing bills with just minutes of consideration and just one vote.
The vast majority of bad bills that are passed under this system usually don’t receive any publicity and are quietly repaired during the next legislative session. However, since the 2017 general session of the legislature ended on the March 9, two bills have garnered significant attention—HB155 (.05 blood alcohol limit) and HB441 (homeless shelters).
When the sponsor of HB155, Representative Norm Thurston, told the Speaker of the Utah House of Representatives, Greg Hughes, that he was going to carry a bill lowering the blood alcohol limit for driving from .08 to .05, Hughes didn’t think it had a chance but, in Hughes’ words, “it just kinda made its way through.”
According to Senator Todd Weiler, the bill would have died after passing the House because the House did not prioritize it for Senate action during the last days of the legislative session. However, someone in Senate leadership made sure that it was taken to the floor of the Senate and passed.
The only organization actively opposing HB155 was the hospitality industry. Unfortunately, their messaging tended to be anti-Utah and anti-Mormon which was not the way to get most legislators and the governor to pay attention to their concerns.
The automobile insurance industry and the gun groups didn’t come forward with their concerns until well after the bill had passed.
Now that the bill has passed, Speaker Hughes argues that .05, which he voted against, is incredibly difficult for social drinkers to understand so the legislature now has to make sure it gets this right. Since the bill does not take effect until January 1, 2019, it will be refined during monthly meetings of legislative committees in coming months—interim sessions of the legislature.
According to Hughes, “A real deep dive will be required during interim and a special session to get it right will then be needed. If we don’t change it, we will have more uninsured motorists because people will be convicted of DUI and the cost of insurance will become prohibitive.”
Possible solutions suggested by the Speaker include making the penalty for a blood alcohol level between .05 and .08 a “ticketable” offense rather than a DUI. Another option would be to delay the effective date until other states have adopted and implemented the .05 limit.
HB441 provides funding for additional homeless shelters in Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County. It requires that a site for the County shelter be announced by March 30, 2017.
The bill came out late in the session and final passage occurred on the last day of the session. When the potential sites were announced a firestorm erupted and legislators representing the impacted areas expressed shock at the process even though they had just voted for the bill.
For more on this bill and the firestorm that it ignited, see Homeless Shelter Flap Shows How Out-of-Touch Legislators Are With Their Constituents.
In conclusion, legislators will argue that only two high profile bills out of the 535 bills passed by the legislature in 45 days is not all that bad, however, only time will tell how many other bad bills slipped through and will need to be quietly fixed during the 2018 session of the legislature.
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