Closing the 2023 Utah Legislature by the Numbers
Last week, the Utah Legislature concluded its 2023 General Assembly passing the most bills in its recorded history.
We know this because Adam Brown, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University, conducted the research and showed how the Utah legislature functions in different ways from year to year.
His work is quite impressive: he’s looked at a record 929 bills that have been tabled and analyzed which lawmakers (and by which parties) are most likely to get their bills on the ground and through the two chambers. He analyzed the 175 hours that Utah’s 104 lawmakers spend debating those bills — even using video analytics software to decode which law was being debated each second of the session. And remarkably, he has most of that data going back to 2007, so we can see how Utah’s legislature may have changed in recent recorded history.
The graphics used in this article are all from Brown’s website; he also gave us permission to use his data. As you can see, 2023 – so far – has been a definite high water mark of bills being introduced and passed by our state’s Legislature.
Who is debating these bills? How much time do they spend on the floor discussing this? How do you usually vote? How does partisanship affect the passed bills? Here are the dates.
About the legislature
As it turns out, most members of the Utah House don’t have much legislative experience. In the House of Representatives, the average legislator has served just 4.9 years prior to serving in the state legislature. Only nine of the 75 members have been in office for more than ten years — five Republicans and four Democrats.
Senators now have more experience, with an average of 9.6 years in the legislature (which includes their prior experience in the House of Representatives, where appropriate). Both levels of experience have not changed significantly over the years Brown has data for 2007.
Brown also has a thorough tally of the number of bills the legislature has been able to bring to the Speaker, put to a vote, and ultimately see through the Legislature. Find your legislator in the list below to see how many floor bills he or she sponsored in the 2023 session:
In the end, Senator Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, brought in the most bills with a whopping 31 – six more than any other legislator. 29 of these bills were voted on and 28 were passed. Meanwhile, Rep. Steven Lund, R-Manti, was the main sponsor of Zero Bills that year.
How are the bills discussed?
Brown’s solution for analyzing the time the House and Senate spend on the floor is actually quite clever: the two houses upload videos of their time on the floor, and Brown scrapes that data to see what’s on a minute- happens on a per-minute basis. He has this data back to 2009.
And what did Brown find? Indeed, the legislature in both chambers spent record time on the ground this year; and another record low in actual debate over the bills. Remember, this is despite a record high in bills being introduced!
I was surprised to see how little time that is in general. I understand members needing to attend off-floor meetings, committee hearings, etc., and yet spending just 65 hours in the House of Representatives and 66 hours in the Senate to debate the proposed 929 bills somehow seems inadequate.
And to be honest, I’m also discouraged to see the total time on the floor decreasing. I wish we had the data to see how lawmakers are using their time instead. Does it increase the time spent in various committees – where at least the debate is still public? Or is it informal meetings – with your party, lobbyists, development interests and so on?
Because the number of bills introduced that year was a record high, the length of debates on each bill was a record low, Brown points out. In the end, the median bill introduced that year spent less than 10 minutes on the ground.
Additionally, voting on each bill only takes about two minutes, so you can subtract about six minutes (the Senate votes twice on each bill) for each bill that the House and Senate consider. Honestly, we’re less than four minutes of broad-based non-voting viewing of the median bill.
There are exceptions. This year, six bills were debated for over an hour: the Voucher/Teacher Raise Bill was debated for about two and a half hours, the Transgender Treatment Bill for about an hour and 50 minutes. The new flag bill was debated for 77 minutes, a youth social media bill for 72 minutes, HB427 on “individual freedom in public education” for 67 minutes, and the bill to change the rules for injunctions by state courts for 65 minutes long on the floor.
By the way, what’s up with all the discussion time off the bill in the chart above? Brown’s video data breaks that down from that session as well:
562 minutes come from reports (mostly from committees).
474 minutes is downtime while the chair waits for MPs to be seated, break time, “loaf” time, and so on.
454 minutes are of personal privileges, acknowledgments, quotes and so on.
327 minutes are communications from the other chamber, the governor, etc.
212 minutes are used for prayers and the oath of allegiance.
And 46 minutes were used for speeches by the Speaker/President, the Committee of All (Conventional Visits), the Governor and the Chief Justice.
There’s pork here that can be trimmed, that’s for sure. I understand the need for committee reports and communications from other elected officers. I’m less than thrilled – okay, that’s an understatement – about time spent on downtime, personal privilege, appreciation, prayer, the pledge of allegiance, and so on. That’s especially true when the time spent on these aspects dwarfs the time spent discussing hundreds of other combined bills that will impact Utah residents.
Finally, I’m interested in the absentee rate: the percentage of MEPs who are absent from a given vote. On average, 13% of Senators were absent from an average plenary vote in that session, while 6% of House Representatives were absent.
How are votes distributed?
But if you look at the polls for yourself, it’s easy to see why the absentee rate might be higher than you’d expect. No matter how you split it up, most of the time the votes are cast with such large majorities that it doesn’t really matter who’s there.
Overall in this session, 77% of the house votes were accepted, with 90% or more of the entire panel voting in favor of one question. In the Senate, that number rose to 87%.
In fact, on the average vote, 93% of House Representatives and 97% of Senators win. Wow!
Most of the time, this broad majority ends with “yes”. Only 3.9% of the House of Representatives voted against a bill. That drops to 1.4% in the Senate.
Brown maintains a list of these rare terse voices here.
Of course, the Utah legislature is heavily Republican. But Democrats very often vote on the same side as Republicans in the legislature. In the House of Representatives, only 14% of the votes were so-called “party line” votes, with a majority of Republicans and a majority of Democrats voting oppositely. In the Senate it was only 9%.
How do parties make a difference?
So where in the data do we see a difference between the two parties? Frankly, it’s because of the bills being sponsored by representatives and senators from each party — there’s a marked difference in the likelihood of a bill getting a vote and eventually being passed depending on which party supports a bill.
First, let’s look at the voting rates for bills. In that session, 80% of the Republican-sponsored bills got a vote on the floor. Only 48% of the Democrat-sponsored bills did so.
As might be expected, Republican-sponsored bills are also more likely to pass. That year, 67% of Republican-backed bills passed both chambers, while 34% of Democrat-backed bills did.
Both the 48% of Democrat-sponsored bills receiving a vote and the 34% of bills passed are record lows in Brown’s recorded history, dating back to 2007.
You can see why, given this data, many legislative observers, like our Robert Gehrke, feel that we’ve reached a high point in this session on partisanship and Republican favoritism. On the other hand, if 85% to 90% of the votes are decided without the influence of parties changing the outcome of the case, even those who argue that overall partisanship is still not very high have a reasonable reason.
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https://www.sltrib.com/news/2023/03/11/andy-larsen-wrapping-up-2023-utah/ Closing the 2023 Utah Legislature by the Numbers