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Shopping for legislation? Why Utah’s part-time legislature can be vulnerable.


This story is part of the Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identifying solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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At American Legislative Exchange CouncilAt last week’s annual meeting in Salt Lake City, all eyes were on the keynote speakers – high-level governors from across the country.

State and local policymakers across the country trawling vendor stands received far less attention.

At the ALEC, a conservative national organization that has been criticized for connecting local and state policymakers with business interests, you’ll find a few staffing tables of specialist government software vendors, but most people are there to sell ideas. Legislation. From human trafficking opponents to advocates of legalizing the sex trade, to major conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and local newcomers like Utah’s own Libertas Institute.

“My team loved the event, we thought it was great,” said Michael Melendez, executive vice president of the Libertas Institute, who explained that Libertas was not there to focus on issues “legacies” like abortion and education, but in new areas. “For us, it’s a question of what are the gaps in the policy market? “

The CAFTA is far from the only place offering access to the “policy market”. Numerous national conferences, of various political stripes, provide a marketplace for state and local decision-makers to effectively research ideas for legislation.

With its part-time and understaffed legislature, Utah may be more likely to buy policies, experts say. Other states, meanwhile, have found solutions that give legislators less reason to turn to outside interests.

What you will find

Vendors who buy space at the ALEC take a variety of approaches to their work. Some offer nothing more than a conversation with an expert. Others have 24-foot tables filled with leaflets, booklets, coasters, pens, stickers and mouse pads, as was the case with the “Save Our States” booth – a dedicated organization. to the protection of the Electoral College.

“Alright, how do you stop them?” A Florida state lawmaker asked as he approached. “That’s all I want to know, how to stop the Socialists? “

Much of the booty on the stand made bold, red lettered references to stopping socialists or socialism.

It took three laps around the vendor room and instructions from a helpful staff member to locate the counter position booth, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, tucked away in one corner.

Ray Haynes, former Republican state senator of California and former national chairman of the ACLA, occupied the national voting booth. He had two offerings.

“If you’re in a rush, here’s the leaflet, and if you’re not, there’s this,” he said, lifting up a book called “Every Equal Vote” that weighed 1,059 pages.

Haynes said there was a “strong conservative argument” for deciding the presidency via the national popular vote.

“I believe in the ACFTA,” said Haynes, who added that he was confident he was supporting the movement through a conversation at an ACFTA meeting.

The Libertas booth offered local Utah legislative victories to lawmakers in other states – arguing primarily for digital privacy and the first universal regulatory sandbox of its kind adopted by the Utah legislature this year.

Melendez, of Libertas, acknowledged that since the regulatory sandbox program will not be launched until the fall, “we don’t know yet.” He cited the effectiveness of other narrower regulatory sandboxes, but not the one that Libertas shared as a model at the ALEC.

Why Utah is particularly vulnerable

The Utah Legislature is less professionalized than most (lower pay for lawmakers, fewer staff, shorter legislative sessions) and therefore more likely to rely on outside sources for policy, a said Adam Brown, associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University.

“If you don’t have as much time to work on the invoices yourself, and if you don’t have as much help from the staff, then you are relying more on what external actors can do for you,” he said. Brown said. “It could be lobbyists that you have worked with in the past and that you trust; it could mean digging less deeply into the governor’s proposals; or it could mean relying on a group like the ACFTA.

Utah lawmakers are not staffed like members of the United States Congress. The only one-on-one support they receive comes from undergraduate interns who serve during the 45-day legislative session (and even interns are sometimes split among lawmakers). Non-ruling Utah lawmakers must either do the work themselves or look to an outside group to prepare the legislation before the session.

Brown says having personal staff doesn’t remove the need or temptation to consult outside interests. “But the lack of personal staff will certainly fuel an additional desire to seek information from others,” he said, “and that takes away a source of information that lawmakers could use to verify what groups outside them. say. “

Data-driven legislation?

Providing personal staff, even shared personal staff, to Utah lawmakers could be costly. This is not the only solution, however.

Two years ago, North Carolina established the Office of Strategic Partnerships (OSP), which aims to strengthen governance and data-driven policy-making in the state by connecting government leaders, academia and local philanthropy.

The OSP holds monthly online discussions, helps connect academia experts with state agency executives, and vice versa, and formalizes connections between these organizations. The aim of these activities is to make partnerships easier and more effective, with the aim of developing evidence-based policies.

“Lots, lots of states want to do something like this,” said Jenni Owen, director of OSP, “and you don’t have to do the full model to see the benefits.

She pointed out that just having a coordinating body to help make connections could leverage the talent that Utah already has in its state agencies, academic centers and research institutes.

“At the end of the day,” Owen said, “it’s about starting those conversations.”

She said openness and transparency in PSO’s conversations, dialogue and data are essential ingredients in creating objective and evidence-based policy.

At the ALEC, on the other hand, most working sessions take place behind closed doors.

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Solutions in Practice – Policy Hacking

Outside organizations are not the only source of influence on state and local lawmakers. As a voter, you can help build an evidence-based DIY policy by working with your local legislator. Here is a step-by-step guide to “policy hacking”.

  1. Pick a question that’s important to you. Try to be as narrow, local and specific as possible. Be clear on “What is the problem that needs to be solved?” “

  2. Identify your local legislator (you can find your state representative and senator here).

  3. Find an expert (s) on your policy issue (for example, you can search for experts at the University of Utah by subject, here – be careful, loading the results may take some time).

  4. Do your research, prepare questions, then schedule a call with your expert (s). Find out what information, data and guidance they can provide.

  5. Contact your legislator (s) and schedule a time to discuss the matter. Prepare yourself with a one-page memo describing the problem and what the data and experts are telling us.

  6. Be persistent, become a data hunter, and don’t hesitate to contact The Tribune’s innovation lab with any questions.

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Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion