On April 15, Howard Stephenson will retire from his 44 years of service to the Utah Taxpayers Association – the longest tenure of any employee since the Association’s founding in 1922. In his final issues writing this corner, he looks back and forward. 

Gideon J Tucker, In 1866, as Surrogate Court Judge of New York County, wrote in a probate decision, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”

If this often repeated statement is true, then the lives, liberties and properties of Utahns are safer than most because the Beehive State’s legislative session is one of the shortest annual sessions in the nation. This makes it possible for ordinary citizens to serve in the legislature, knowing they won’t have to give up full-time jobs to serve. The brief session also motivates legislators to be more prepared and efficient during the general session.

Perhaps because of this perceived threat to liberty while the legislature meets, many mistakenly feel that every law enacted erodes freedom.  I have found that to be too broad a brush. In fact, a majority of the legislation I and many of my colleagues sponsored actually restricted the powers of government and expanded freedom. 

For example, Utah’s Truth in Taxation property tax limitation law and other government transparency legislation restricted the powers of government and made it more accountable to the electorate. School choice legislation restored the concept that parents are their child’s first and best teachers and should have the right to choose how, where, and by whom their children are educated, with the dollars following their choices. Legislation restricting searches and seizures, and restrictions on civil asset forfeiture, are protections of the people.

The Legislative Sausage Factory?

Mr. John Godfrey Saxe said, “Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.” Sometimes the legislative process seems a bit wild and crazy, but that’s the nature of 45 days of non-stop debate, negotiating, and finding how to get to 38-15-1; the minimum number of votes required to pass a law through the Utah House, Senate and Governor’s desk.

Admittedly, the legislative process can figuratively look and smell like a sausage factory when decorum is breached, when legislators worry more about the next election than the next generation, when legislators vote contrary to their values to get colleagues to vote for their bills, and when legislators cave to peer pressure. Neither party has a corner on integrity or statesmanship: I have seen each exhibited by my staunchest foe and denied by my closest ally and vice-versa.

The best times are when debate is honest and robust, when mutual respect is shared in spite of differences, when the sponsors of legislation know they’ve been heard and understood, regardless of the vote outcome. Fortunately, in Utah, this is more the rule than the exception.

Changes Over the Years in the Legislative Process 

While serving as Speaker of the Utah House in the mid ‘90s, Rob Bishop often pointed out to visitors that the legislative process was created to prevent legislation from passing, not to enact new laws. A bill could be killed in the Rules Committee instead of assigned to committee. If it receives a committee hearing, it could be amended or defeated. If it receives a favorable vote in committee it could be killed on the floor if it fails to obtain a majority vote. If the bill survives the house of origin, it must survive the same process in the opposite house, and finally receive the signature or veto of the Governor.

While the requirements for passage of legislation has not changed much over the years, the technology involved has changed drastically.  When I began lobbying the legislature in my first session in 1978 the top of each Senate and House member’s desk were covered with legal size loose leaf binders containing hundreds of printed bills to be considered.  This made it hard for the members of each body to see the speaker or president on the dias.  The binders expanded with each new bill that was printed, so every time the legislators left the floor, pages (aptly named) would descend on the floor of each house, remove the staples from each hole-punched printed bill and insert them in the proper order in the loose leafs. There were constant paper cuts. In more recent years, bills were finally printed on regular letter size paper so the shorter binders were easier to see over. Technology soon made the paper bills obsolete and each legislator was furnished with a laptop computer to access all the information that once had been only in printed form. 

Before digital access to proposed bills and committee agendas, the Legislative Mail Room was the busiest place on the Hill. Lobbyists and the public had to subscribe to receive the bills and each subscriber had a mailbox in which the clerks would place a copy of bills. Sometimes lucky lobbyists could obtain an advanced copy of a bill before printing which made them very popular with their colleagues who wished for a photocopy.

U.S. mail, especially during the General Session used to flood into the legislature. Gradually, the snail-mail gave way to faxes and finally, now most of that communication is through email, texts and mobile phones.

Lobbyists Then and Now

In the mid-70s when I started lobbying for the Taxpayers Association there was a small fraction of the thousands of lobbyists today. Jack Olson of the Utah Taxpayers Association and Robert Halladay of the Utah Mining Association were two of the most prominent and senior lobbyists. There was a couch on the third floor of the Capitol building by the elevator between the House and Senate floor entrances. This was known by everyone as Olson’s and Halladay’s “office.” Legislators wanting information or to know positions of these organizations always knew where these men could be found. 

The Capitol building during the legislative session in recent years was crowded with hundreds of citizens and lobbyists, but due to COVID-19 the crowds are gone and legislators are reached digitally. Committee meetings are uncrowded with social distancing enforced and much of the committee member participation and public testimony is provided through Zoom meetings.   

The Inside of Lobbying

While buying a suit last month the attendant, knowing my history of lobbying and serving in the legislature asked if I could advise him on how he could get into the lobbying business. I explained a person needed at least one of these prerequisites in order to be successful at lobbying: The first is knowledge and passion about a cause you want to promote. The second is a deep understanding and experience in the legislative process. He admitted that he had neither of these. 

Many of the most effective lobbyists in Utah today learned the craft from interning for legislators and other more senior lobbyists. His question made me realize how important experienced, ethical lobbyists are in assisting citizens and businesses to navigate the legislative process effectively.

Lobbying has laws governing it. The law requires a lobbyist to wear a badge revealing they are a paid lobbyist. In order to qualify for the badge one must pass ethics and sexual harassment prevention training. The law also prohibits lobbying contracts to be based on passage or defeat of legislation.

Utah Is in Good Hands

As I was participating in Zoom committee meetings and watching the Senate and House floor action this week I was struck for the first time since leaving the Senate two years ago how smooth and open the process is. The professionalism of legislators in presenting their bills, the respectful nature of debate, and the ease of watching all that was happening in high-def living color made me proud to be a Utahn.