On Tuesday, Oct. 2, Moab City Mayor Emily Niehaus, Moab City Council and Grand County Council members met for a joint meeting with the Utah Association of Counties and discussed how to build a legislative lobbying coalition.
Also in attendance were Grand County Budget Advisory Board Budget Officer Chris Baird, Grand County Community and Economic Development Director Zacharia Levine, Moab City Manager David Everitt and Joel Linares, an attorney who began working as Moab’s assistant city manager on Oct. 1.
The “Legislative Lobbying 101” meeting was held at the Grand County Council’s chambers and was led by Lincoln Shurtz, director of external relations for the Utah Association of Counties (UAC).
THE CHALLENGES OF RURAL LEADERSHIP
Eighty-two percent of population in the state of Utah lives in the Wasatch Front, Shurtz said. Traveling to lobby the state legislature means that people from Moab and Grand County would have a seven- to eight-hour roundtrip drive.
“In terms of leadership … candidly speaking, I don’t know how you could do it remotely,” Shurtz said.
The state makes budget decisions on mandatory spending for education, transportation, retirement, Medicaid and other departments. That leaves about $3 million in discretionary “budget dust” that can be argued over, he said.
County-run programs like courts, jails and health departments are state-funded programs handled regionally, Shurtz said, but cities are not “agents of the state” and city-run programs are not services considered to be state responsibilities
The state budget, he said, “is all behind the scenes — 90 percent of this work is not done through the committee process, it is done by leadership.”
Moab City Council member Mike Duncan asked if these leadership meetings or discussions are open to the public, and Shurtz said no.
“What’s wrong with this picture?” Duncan asked rhetorically.
Shurtz added that the legislature which created the Government Records Access and Management Act, commonly referred to as GRAMA, did not make it a requirement for themselves to be required to follow GRAMA.
“I wouldn’t say that all of the decisions are happening behind close doors,” he said, but also added that the Speaker of House, the president of the Senate and the governor can discuss the funding of programs at the governor’s mansion “informally” in the days leading up to the final vote. That means that getting their attention on a piece of legislation is “very, very hard.”
“Using lobbyists and working with legislators is very important,” he said. “Again, doing that from three-and-a-half hours away — very difficult.”
“It is not going to be helpful to only call your legislator in January (when budget is being finalized),” Shurtz said, “because now is when they will begin laying the groundwork … now is the time when you need to be sitting down with them.”
His recommendation to Moab and Grand County: “Try to figure out a way to build a coalition with your legislators.”
Shurtz suggested for Moab and Grand County to be represented on various boards and legislative committees, which is usually done by an appointment by UAC.
Niehaus said that at 4 p.m. on Oct. 30, the city and county is holding another joint meeting, and encouraged the city and county to come to the meeting with a list priorities for the upcoming legislative session (starting in January).
“From there, we can do the work we need to do,” Niehaus said.
Shurtz cautioned the city and county on its next steps and said, “I would try and be really thoughtful on [priorities] … it’s got to be a really constrained focus.”
He said the next legislative session is expected to tackle affordable housing because some members of Congress will be among the largest land and housing developers in the state of Utah.
Niehaus said that she and Grand County Council member Mary McGann will take the lead in organizing the local lobbying priorities and will be “setting up the agenda for the prioritization of both the city and county on the top three to five legislative focus efforts.”
And although there are people in rural Grand County who would like to see one of those top issues focus on altering the Transient Room Tax (TRT) funding formula or spending, those efforts are likely to fail due to upcoming audits on TRT spending in each county, Shurtz said.
“Two week ago, I got a call from the Speaker of the House,” he said. There had been some “poking around” on how TRT funds were being spent in the state by various counties.
Two counties are of the state’s main concern, Salt Lake County and Davis County, but Shurtz was not aware of any concern the state could have with Grand County.
“(If) there’s overwhelming misuse of the funds discovered … there will be full-fledged audit on counties’ use of TRT taxes in the next one or two months … you are going to get audited,” he said, “just prepare for that audit.”
Due to the audit process throughout the next legislative session, it’s unlikely that the state will approve of any legislative changes to TRT, despite lobbying efforts, until the audits are completed.
HOW A BILL BECOMES A LAW — UTAH-STYLE
Shurtz began the meeting by saying, “All rules are meant to be broken.”
Shurtz clarified his statement by saying that all rules can be overturned with a change of law by the legislature. “A simple majority vote can overturn any rule.”
But, people start questioning the narrative, he said, about why a rule is being overturned.
“Oftentimes, that gets politicized,” he said. “We tend to follow our leaders (in Utah) … with that, often times there is a hesitancy to overturn a ruling.”
In the state of Utah’s 45-day legislative calendar session last year, he said, there were 1,100 bills introduced.
“You’re cranking through hundreds of bills every week,” Shurtz said. “We did an analysis, it’s a couple of years old now, but on average, they spend about nine minutes total on a piece of legislature. So, if something is important to you, understand they spend about nine minutes on the process.”
Some bills get just one or two minutes of dialogue or discussion when they’re presented in the Utah House of Representatives or the Senate, Shurtz said.
“Unlike most states, we don’t have professional staff for legislators,” Shurtz said. There is no formal staff body ‘that’s per se driving an agenda for an individual legislator,” and instead a number of interns are used as staff, he said. There is an office of legislative research and general counsel that helps legislators draft their work, he added.
“The limited staff that they do have do staff the individual committees,” Shurtz added, but said that those staff members do not provide directional advice to the legislature.
Shurtz next discussed the process in which legislation is introduced in the House and Senate and vetted through various committees before being voted upon — how a bill becomes a law, Utah-style.
For example, a piece of legislation introduced in the Utah House of Representatives is read by the clerk for the first time, and the second and third readings are consolidated into one reading and a final vote taken. If the House passes that piece of legislation, it moves to the Senate for readings and voting.
Grand County Council member Jaylyn Hawks questioned the reading process.
“When you say reading, it seems like you meant only the title of the bill?” Hawks said.
“The first reading is only the headline being read into the record,” Shurtz said, adding that even the second and third readings is a formal presentation of key points in the legislature — not the full text of the bill.
“So, (it’s) a more consolidated method,” Shurtz said, but he said it still gives an opportunity for amendments to be made, or for committees to kill a bill by “sitting on it” and not placing it into review.
Both the House and the Senate must agree on any amendments and the final version of the bill, so it might be passed back and forth between the House and Senate committees until a consensus is reached.
“That usually goes very fast,” Shurtz said.
Following the meeting, McGann said, “I thought it was formative. It was worth our time. I was disappointed about the TRT audit, it might delay our efforts to making changes to the formula and expansion of how the money can be spent.”
Utah Association of Counties advises joint session on working with legislature
“In terms of leadership … candidly speaking, I don’t know how you could do it remotely.”