By car, plane but likely not on mass transit, members of the Utah State Legislature have found their way back to the capital city, filtering in from all corners of the Beehive State to commence 45 days of lawmaking.
At this very moment, the legislators—many of them attorneys, developers, ranchers and small-business men and women by day—are sitting through "appropriations" meetings, puzzling about how best to spend your money.
For generations, this public show of democracy has had a tendency to draw intrigue and provoke ire from much of the state. Utah is a quirky place dominated by extremes. Like its summers and winters, its politics are either sweaty hot or icy cold—a possible consequence of the lopsided number of Republicans versus that of Democrats in both the House and the Senate.
This imbalance of political ideology—which, at 12 Democratic house members to the Republicans' 63, and five Democratic senators to the Republicans' 24, is at its second-largest gap in the past 80 years—has a tendency to destroy the perception that meaningful debate occurs in Zion when the Legislature convenes.
If bodies and party affiliations are all that matter, defeats and victories are foregone conclusions. But politics should be a lot more like that other, much more popular, American pastime: football.
In football stadiums across the country—even in Utah—there is a belief that the crowd matters. In College Station, Texas, where the Texas A&M Aggies play, the student body is thought of as the "12th Man" (11 football players take the field in college and professional football). Same goes for the fans of the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks—the team's crowd, among the loudest in professional football—are called the 12th man.
During this legislative session, around 800 bills, or new laws and amendments to laws, will be put forth. Hundreds will be approved. All of them, one way or another, will impact how Utahns live their lives.
Thumbing a nose at this gathering is among the worst sorts of apathy. Lack of participation on citizens' behalf is little more than a surrender to the whims and wants of these elected leaders and whoever it is that happens to be twisting their ears—and you can be sure someone is twisting their ears.
But, in 2015, why shouldn't you be doing the ear-twisting? The grand marble rooms and the imposing granite building that make up the State Capitol belong to you. Go inside and walk around. Make yourself at home. And when the opportunity arises and a topic dear to your heart is considered, make the elected leaders—and the lobbyists and campaign contributors who throw cash their way—hear you.
The Rules of Engagement
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and the right-leaning Eagle Forum aren't often allied on the same side of an issue. But when it comes to encouraging citizens to participate in the political process, the two groups agree that more is better.
Both of these groups, and many others, including the League of Women Voters and the conservative Libertas Institute, have hosted or will be hosting special events during the legislative session aimed at training citizens on how to lobby their legislators and take a more active role in the process.
By sheer numbers, the legislative session is daunting: in 45 days, 104 elected politicians lock horns over roughly 800 proposed bills, of which a few hundred see the light of day (in 2014, 486 bills were passed). As of press time, there were 470 registered lobbyists in Utah, or 4 1/2 for every legislator. And, of the money that pours into legislators' campaign vaults, 82 percent, according to a study by The Salt Lake Tribune, comes from special interests—not individual constituents.
Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute of Utah—an organization that lobbies on behalf of private property rights and government deregulation—admits the legislative process can be intimidating. But he and his counterparts in the advocacy world say they would welcome more citizen lobbyists on Capitol Hill.
"We are limited by our humanity, and we can't juggle more balls than we can," Boyack says. "The fact that more people are paying attention increases the likelihood that the net result will be a positive one."
Chief among the reasons that a person might find themselves unable to march up the steps of the Capitol during the legislative session is that most of the people's business is done during working hours.
Drop an E-mail
For those who can't break away and attend the meetings that are important to them, Jenn Gonnelly, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Utah, says Utah has "one of the best websites in the country for following our Legislature."
Along with being quite easy to navigate, the state's website, Le.Utah.gov, catalogs audio recordings of every committee hearing, which can also be heard live. Recordings of meetings are also podcast.
The most important single way to participate in the lawmaking process, says Gonnelly, is to find out who represents you. "Everybody needs to know who their legislator is," she says. "This is the time to drop an e-mail to your legislator and your senator and say, 'This is my address. I am your constituent, and I will be tuning in; I will be paying attention.' "
Anna Brower, public policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, says that anyone who can't attend meetings on the hill should align themselves with organizations that follow the bills that they're passionate about.
For instance, if keeping up-to-date on legislation about police body cameras is important, people can follow the social media platforms of the group Utah Against Police Brutality.
"I think there are a lot of good points to plug into where people have done a lot of the screening for you on the issues that you may care about," Brower says, noting that another good way to keep tabs on legislators is to follow their Twitter accounts.
But if the issues you care about aren't being addressed by any watchdog groups or organizations, Brower says, by all means, attend the meetings, write to the legislators and speak up. A face-to-face encounter can have great impact, she says, even if it's brief.
"You can go up there and observe at any time," she says. "In terms of having an impact on legislators, it reminds them that there are human beings that they're impacting."
Even for those who make the legislature their business, like Boyack, it is impossible to keep up with everything lawmakers are doing. Boyack recommends that citizens pick a single bill and follow it through the process. Those hoping to keep tabs on individual bills may sign up for e-mail notifications through Le.Utah.gov—then receive an alert every time the bill moves, or progress on it is made.
Citizen Sponsor Program
To aid in this process, the Libertas Institute has organized a citizen-sponsor program. Boyack says participants commit to reading a bill, contacting legislators about the bill and issuing testimony on the bill. Information about becoming a citizen sponsor through Libertas is available at LibertasUtah.org/sponsor. "The biggest thing that needs to be done for more people to get involved in the Legislature is simplification," he says.
In an echo of what Brower says about aligning with an organization, Boyack points people to the Libertas website, where around 80 bills the organization supports—and some it wants to see die—are followed.
Although Boyack, Brower and Gonnelly all advocate on behalf of issues important to their organizations, Boyack says the most important thing, whether you agree with him or not, is to participate.
"When more people are paying attention to a given bill, the likelihood of deceptions, the likelihood of corruption, is severely diminished," he says.
Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka says, along with providing a training day for citizens, which was already held on the session's first day, she invites anyone who wants to tag along with her at the Capitol for a crash course.
"You can come up as a group; you can come up as an individual," she says. "But the important thing is that you come."
Citizen Engagement Events
The National Alliance on Mental Illness and Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Services are hosting a pair of advocacy days (Feb. 10, 9-10 a.m., Copper Room, first floor of East Senate Building; Feb. 23, 10 a.m.-noon, second floor of Capitol Building.
Participants will be taught about citizen-lobbying guidelines and information about the legislative process. Once participants are up to speed, they'll be asked to hunt down their legislators to tell them to support criminal justice and health-care reform. Another fine way to keep up with the Legislature is to follow the news. City Weekly reporters Colby Frazier and Eric S. Peterson will be posting stories throughout the session at CityWeekly.net. Follow @colbyfrazierlp and @ericspeterson on Twitter.