The State Legislature

What is the state legislature and who are our state legislators?

 Introduction

Government at a state level is something that you never really hear about unless you are politically invested. Most people have no idea what our state government looks like, how it is structured or how it works. Great resources like the states legislative website exist to help ordinary people learn how to navigate and interact with the political system. This section will give you a good overview on the legislature and our legislators.

The structure of our state government

Our state government consists of three branches sharing a similar level of infrastructure as our federal government with a Legislative Branch, an Executive Branch, and a Judicial Branch. Each of these branches play a pivotal role in making our great state run the way it does.

  • The Legislative Branch is in charge of making new laws and has the responsibility of amending existing laws. These new laws that are drawn up by the branch become state laws if they are not vetoed by the governor, Gary Herbert.
  • The Executive Branch implements and enforces laws that are passed by legislation. The Executive Branch includes the Governor of the state and administrative agencies, such as the labor commission and tax commission, among many more.
  • The Judicial Branch has the responsibility of resolving disputes between the different parties. They hear evidence in juvenile and justice court hearings and decide the facts of the case. The judicial branch also includes the court of appeals and the state Supreme Court that is used to hear appeals from the lower courts.

The state legislature

Our state legislative branch consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives, just like in our federal government. These elected representatives are collectively known as our “state legislature”. State legislators are part-time politicians who often have a full-time occupation on the side, such as being a doctor or a lawyer. Each “Legislature” is a two-year period. The current 62nd legislature will continue through the 2017 and 2018 Legislative Sessions.

Who can be a state legislator?

In order to qualify to be a member of the Senate you must be

  • a citizen of the United States
  • a resident of Utah for at least three consecutive years prior to filing for office
  • 25 years or older
  • and a resident of the district in which you will be elected for at least six months.

In order to qualify to be a member of the House you must be:

  • a citizen of the United States
  • a resident of Utah for at least three consecutive years prior to filing for office
  • 25 years or older
  • and a qualified voter in the district in which you will be elected.

How are our state legislators chosen?

In Utah, each resident has one state representative and one state senator. However, our Senate and House districts are different. Utah is broken down into 29 Senate districts and 75 House districts, each electing their own legislator accordingly.

Before state legislative candidates can reach a primary or general election to be decided on by the general population, they are voted on by the county and state delegates. County delegates vote on legislative candidates in precincts that fall within a single county. State delegates vote on legislative candidates in precincts that fall within more than one county.

If a candidate receives 60% or more of the delegate votes at a party nominating convention, then that candidate bypasses a primary election and advances directly to a general election. If no candidate receives 60% of the vote, then the top two candidates at the convention advance to a primary election to be voted on by the general party membership before one may advance to a general election.

In this supermajority Republican state, GOP candidates selected by the delegates for general election are almost guaranteed to win in conservative precincts. That means only a small handful of Utah’s voting population are responsible for selecting state legislators in many cases. In other words, if you’d like more sway in selecting your representatives, consider becoming a delegate in your precinct. Learn more about delegates here.

We should also note that state legislators sometimes run completely unopposed for their seat in the Senate or House, eliminating any competition in an election. Competition in elections is good because it creates a level of accountability to the voters for the legislator.

What does our state legislature look like?

A total of 104 legislators make up our state legislature, with 29 in the Senate and 75 in the House of Representatives. Utah is called a supermajority state because both legislative bodies are comprised of a strong majority of Republicans. Utah’s legislature is also predominantly male. Here is a look at the current demographics of the state legislature:

  MEN WOMEN REPUBLICANS DEMOCRATS TOTAL
UTAH STATE SENATE 24 5 24 5 29

 

  MEN WOMEN REPUBLICANS DEMOCRATS  TOTAL
UTAH HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES 61 14 63 12 75

 

Leadership in the Senate and the House 

Both the Senate and House of Representatives have leadership positions for majority and minority members. These leaders are chosen on the first day of the beginning of each two-year term. Members of the State Legislature meet in political party caucuses between the general election and next state legislative session to elect their leadership. Leadership positions include:

  • President of the Senate – Principal leader of the senate who
    • Presides over the daily sessions of the senate
    • Preserves order in the chamber
    • States parliamentary motions
    • Rules on parliamentary questions
    • Appoints committee chairs and members
    • Refers bills to committee
    • Signs legislation, writs, and warrants
    • Acts as official spokesman for the senate
  • Speaker of the House – Principal leader of House of Representatives who
    • Presides over daily sessions of the house or assembly
    • Preserves order in chamber
    • States parliamentary motions
    • Rules on parliamentary questions
    • Appoints committee chairs and members
    • Refers bills to committee
    • Signs legislation, writs and, warrants
    • Acts as official spokesman for house or assembly
  • Majority Leader – Leads speaker for the majority party during floor debates, develops the calendar and assists the president or speaker with program development, policy formation, and policy decisions
  • Majority Caucus Chair – Develops the majority caucus agenda with the principal leaders, presides over the majority caucus meetings, assists development of policy
  • Majority Whip – Assists floor leader, ensures member attendance, counts votes, generally communicates the majority position
  • Assistant Majority Whip – Assists Majority whip
  • Minority Leader – Develops the minority position, negotiates with the majority party, directs minority caucus activities on the chamber floor, leads debate for the minority
  • Minority Caucus Chair – Presides over caucus meetings, assists minority leader with policy development
  • Minority Whip – Assists the minority leader on the floor, counts votes, ensures attendance of minority party members
  • Assistant Minority Whip – Assists Minority whip

Non-elected officials

In addition to our elected senators and representatives, the organization of the state legislature includes some non-elected officials who serve critical support functions for the legislative body, including the secretary of the Senate (appointed by the president) and chief clerk of the House (appointed by the speaker), plus administrative assistants, sergeants-at-arms and special clerks like the journal clerk, docket clerk, voting machine operator, reading clerk and audio recording clerk.

Party caucuses also play an important role at the state legislature. The majority caucus and the minority caucuses serve as a party communication center, allowing leadership to easily inform members of partisan positions, membership to voice their opinions and for both to attempt to reach consensus on party matters. The caucus can sometimes determine the outcome of important or controversial legislation.

The Utah State Senate

Senators are elected to 4 year terms with about half of the entire senate standing for election every 2 years. Remember, there are only 29 state senators. These senators have offices in the Senate Building on the east end of the Capitol Hill campus, and hold floor sessions all together in the Senate Chamber on the north side of the State Capitol Building on the 3rd floor.

During floor sessions, each senator sits at the same assigned desk for the entire legislative period. The floor sessions may be observed by the public from a seating gallery on the fourth floor overlooking the proceedings, but the public may not comment during floor sessions.

The Senate Office is located in the Capitol Building, Suite 320 and can be reached at (801) 538-1035. The Minority Office is just upstairs in Suite 460, and can be reached at (801) 538-1406. The Senate also has non-elected officers, like the Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Senate, administrative assistants, sergeant-at-arms and special clerks, who serve critical support functions for the Senate.

The current Senate leaders are:

  • President of the Senate: Wayne L. Niederhauser (R) District 9, Salt Lake County
  • Majority Leader: Ralph Okerlund (R) Disctrict 24, Beaver, Garfield, Juab, Kane, Millar, Utah, Wayne Counties
  • Minority Leader: Gene Davis(D) District 3, Salt Lake County
  • Majority Whip: J. Stuart Adamds (R) District 22, Davis County
  • Minority Whip: Karen Mayne (D) District 5, Salt Lake County
  • Assistant Majority Whip: Peter C. Knudson (R) District 17, Box Elder, Cache, Tooele Counties
  • Assistant Minority Whip: Luz Escamilla (D) Disctrict 1, Salt Lake County
  • Executive Appropriations Chair: Jerry W. Stevenson (R) District 21, Davis county
  • Minority Caucus Manager: Jani Iwamoto (D) District 4, Salt Lake County
  • Senate Rules Chair: Deidre M. Henderson (R) District 7, Utah county

The Utah House of Representatives

Unlike the Senate, Representatives are elected to 2 year terms. The 75 state representatives have offices in the House Building on the west side of the Capitol Hill campus and hold floor sessions all together in the House Chamber, located on the west end of the Capitol Building, third floor.

Just like in the Senate, each representative sits at the same assigned desk in the House Chamber during floor sessions for the duration of the legislative period. House floor sessions may be observed by the public from a seating gallery on the fourth floor overlooking the proceedings, but the public may not comment during these sessions.

The House Office is located in the Capitol Building, Suite 350 and can be reached at (801) 538-1029. The Minority Office is upstairs in Suite 400, and can be reached at (801) 538-1650. The House also has its own Chief of Staff and a Chief Clerk, appointed by the Speaker of the House, who oversees a team of non-elected support staff.

The current House leaders are:

  • Speaker of the House: Gregory H. Hughes (R) District 51
  • Majority Leader: Brad R. Wilson (R) District 15
  • Minority Leader: Brian S. King (D) District 28
  • Majority Whip: Francis D. Gibson (R) District 65
  • Minority Whip: Joel K. Briscoe (D) District 25
  • Assistant Majority Whip: John Knotwell (R) District 52
  • Assistant Minority Whip: Angela Romero (D) District 26
  • Executive Appropriations Chair: Dean Sanpei (R) District 63
  • Minority Caucus Manager: Sandra Hollins (D) District 23
  • House Rules Chair: Michael E. Noel (R) District 73

Legislative Committees

All members of the Legislature hold positions on House- and Senate-specific standing committees and joint appropriations subcommittees during the 45-day general session. They also sit on joint interim committees during the period of time between general sessions. All of these committees work under the direction of a chair and vice chair. The president of the Senate and the speaker of the House appoint the committee chairs. See a detailed list of committees at the end of this section.

  • Standing Committees – Permanent committees intended to consider all matters pertaining to a designated subject. Standing committees specific to the Senate and House meet during the general session in public hearings to debate, hear testimony on and vote on legislation assigned to them by leadership. Unlike Senate standing committees, House standing committees are divided according to importance into three categories. Class A, Class B, and Class C.
  • Appropriation Committees – Joint committees made up of members from the Senate and House who are appointed by leadership. They have a responsibility to review and approve funding for the state government and balance the budget. There is one Executive Appropriations Committee and eight appropriations subcommittees.
  • Interim Committee – Joint committees made up of members of the Senate and House who study key issues facing the state and recommend legislation for the upcoming session. These committees meet on the 3rd Wednesday of every month between May and November (excluding July). They offer valuable information and opinions regarding issues being considered in the interim committees. At times, they vote on proposed legislation so that it may enter the legislative process during the general session as an “Interim bill” with an interim committee note of endorsement and skip a standing committee vote. Usually legislators are appointed to 2 interim committees.
  • Rules Committee – Legislative committees in the Senate and House responsible for evaluating all legislation for proper form, including fiscal note, and either hold the legislation or refer it to a standing committee or second reading on the legislative floor for debate and voting by the legislators.

The State Legislative Session (or “General Session”)

Members of the legislature come together at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on the 4th Monday in January for what is known as the General Session, or the State Legislative Session. The Session runs for 45 days (not including President’s Day), and is the period of time in which the legislature proposes, debates and decides on nearly all state legislation for the year and also balances the state budget. We’ll get into the State Legislative Session in more detail later, but suffice to say this is a great time to come to Capitol Hill, to sit in on and sometimes testify in committee meetings, and to meet with and lobby legislators.

How a bill becomes a law

Ideas for bills can come from all kinds of places: constituents, government agencies, special interest groups, lobbyists, the Governor or even personal experiences of the legislator. After the idea is conceived, a legislator will use data and resources to shape it into legislation that must follow these steps to become law, per the legislative website:

  1. The Bill is Drafted.The idea is submitted to the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, a nonpartisan legislative staff office, in the form of a bill request. The assigned bill drafting attorney reviews existing law, researches the issues, and prepares the bill in proper technical form. The bill is given a number. A fiscal review is conducted and a “Fiscal Note” is attached. The bill is also reviewed for statutory or constitutional concerns.
  2. The Bill is Introduced.The bill is introduced into the Legislature and referred to the Rules Committee.
  3. The Bill Receives Standing Committee Review and Public Input.The Rules Committee recommends to the presiding officer the standing committee to which the bill should be referred. The standing committee, in an open meeting, reviews the bill and receives public testimony. The committee may amend, hold, table, substitute, or make a favorable recommendation on the bill.
  4. The Bill Is Returned to the Floor.Following the committee hearing the bill is returned to the full house with a committee report. The committee reports the bill out favorably, favorably with amendments, substituted, or that the bill has been tabled.
  5. The Bill is Debated in Open Session.The bill is debated in open session. During floor debate, the bill can be amended or substituted. It can be held (circled). In order for a bill to pass the House of Representatives, it must receive at least 38 votes. The bill must receive at least 15 votes in the Senate in order to pass.
  6. The Bill Passes Both Houses in the Legislature.After the bill has gone through both houses, it is signed by both presiding officers (the Senate President and the Speaker of the House).
  7. The Bill is Prepared for the Governor’s Action.The Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel prepares the bill in final form. This is called the “enrolled” bill.
  8. The Bill Receives the Governor’s Action.The enrolled bill is sent to the Governor for his action. He can either sign the bill, veto it, or allow it become law without his signature.
  9. The Bill Becomes Effective.A bill enacted by the Legislature is effective 60 days following adjournment, unless another date is specified in the bill. It then becomes law.

Not all legislation is enacted in the form of a bill. Sometimes resolutions, instead of bills, are passed to express legislative intent. There are three types of resolutions: 

  • Simple resolutions – Need only pass in the house of origin and initiate action involving only that house, such as establishing a committee or altering the house’s rules
  • Joint resolutions – Must pass in both the House and the Senate and are used for matters involving both houses, such as appointing joint committees, issuing joint communiques, or proposing to amend the Utah Constitution
  • Concurrent resolutions – Must pass in both the House and Senate and be signed by the governor and are used to express the position of the state on a specific matter

All bills and resolutions, once they are numbered, can be tracked through the state legislative website at: le.gov.utah.

Interim Sessions

In addition to the State Legislative Session, the legislature comes together on the third Wednesday each month at the State Capitol from May through November (excluding July) for what is known as Interim Sessions. Each Interim Session is filled with Interim Committee meetings or Appropriations Committee meetings to “study” (discuss and learn about) topics the legislators are interested in pursuing during the upcoming General Session. We’ll get into Interim Session in more detail later as well.

Special Sessions

The Governor of Utah has sole discretion to call a special session of the state legislature, usually during an Interim Session day, to assemble temporarily to consider a specific legislative issue requiring immediate attention and work to pass legislation that addresses that issue. Several special sessions were called in 2016, such as the session called in November to fix a gasoline tax distribution problem, among other agenda items. No special session has been called in 2017, though some legislators thought one should be called to determine the procedure for selecting candidates for vacated congressional posts after Utah’s Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-CD3) announced his early departure from the U.S. House of Representatives.

Senate and House Committees

Senate Standing Committees: Business & Labor; Economic Development & Workforce Services; Education; Government Operations & Political Subdivisions; Health & Human Services; Judiciary, Law Enforcement & Criminal Justice; Natural Resources, Agriculture & Environment; Retirement & Independent Entities; Revenue & Taxation; Transportation, Public Utilities, Energy & Technology; Rules; Ethics. For current committee members and links to all standing committees, click here.

Joint appropriations committees: Executive Appropriations; Business, Economic Development & Labor; Executive Offices & Criminal Justice; Higher Education; Infrastructure & General Government; Natural Resources, Agriculture & Environmental Quality; Public Education; Retirement & Independent Entities; Social Services. For all current committee members and links to all appropriations committees, click here.

Other Joint Committees:  Research & General Counsel Subcommittee, Subcommittee on Oversight. Find links to these committees here.

Joint Task Forces: Health Reform Task Force, Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force. Find links to these committees here.

House Standing Committees: “A” committees: Business & Labor; Education; Health & Human Services; Public Utilities, Energy & Technology. “B” committees: Judiciary; Law Enforcement & Criminal Justice; Natural Resource, Agriculture & Environment; Transportation. “C” committees: Government Operations; Political Subdivisions; Revenues & Taxation, Economic Development & Workforce Services. Link to all committee meeting schedules, members, bills assigned and audio recordings here.

Other House Committees: Rules, Ethics, Administrative Rules, Retirement & Independent Entities. Link to all committee meeting schedules, members, and audio recordings here.

Interim Committees (joint): Business and Labor; Economic Development and Workforce Services; Education; Government Operations; Health and Human Services; Judiciary; Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice; Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment; Political Subdivisions; Public Utilities, Energy and Technology; Retirement and Independent Entities; Revenue and Taxation and Transportation. For current committee members and links to the committees, click here.

In addition, there may be a number of other committees, task forces, commissions, caucuses and so forth to take on specific issues of need at any given time, such as the Federal Funds Commission, the Clean Air Caucus, the Legislative Audit Subcommittee, and the Utah Tax Review Commission. For a full list of legislative committees, please click here.

For more information on the state legislature, check out this Legislative Guide on the state legislative website.