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2000 State Legislature


April 6, 2000


2000 Legislature:
The Emerging Power of the Citizen

By Daniel B. Newby

Last year, most lawmakers and political observers characterized the legislative session as orderly and civil. While relations among legislators may have remained cordial enough this year, legislators and other observers have characterized citizen involvement as more intense and more disapproving.

In fact, during the debate over various bills dealing with individual liberties, many individual citizens, as well as small, unpaid citizen lobbyist groups, were vilified as being too vocal, too unrealistic, and too uncompromising. Representative Dave Jones described the legislative atmosphere to the Salt Lake Tribune in this way:

"We've gotten to the point where any kook with an e-mail can stampede the herd."

Representative Susan Koehn, who recently announced her retirement, stated in a Deseret News article:

"The e-mail interactions have been more hostile this past session… It made it easier for me to leave. It absolutely confirmed my decision to step down."

Many other legislators reported receiving unprecedented numbers of e-mails and phone calls, some firm but cordial, and some hostile.

The point is that this type of intensity represents a new level of public input. Armed with the power to rapidly acquire information on upcoming legislation via email and the Internet, some citizens are becoming emboldened and are doing what they have been encouraged to do for a long time: "Let your elected representatives hear from you." Some communications may have been less than cordial, but the increased citizen input appeared to be responsible for the elimination of many threats to individual liberty, and to some extent even slowed past legislative trends of higher taxes, more regulation, and larger government.

For instance, it was reported that citizen pressure originating from e-mail groups ended property forfeiture expansion bills such as HB 173, entitled, "Forfeiture Relating to Sexual Offenses Against Children." This bill would have provided government with the power to confiscate computers and computer systems for the unintentional possession of contraband material on them by their owners. After passing the house (69 to 1), and passing the Senate's second reading (17 to 8), observers say that a tremendous amount of citizen pressure turned the tables and killed the bill (11 to 13) on the third and final reading.

According to the Deseret News, some observers attributed "parental-rights lobbying" to the sinking of SB 37, which would have created a 13-member "State Student Survey Committee," appointed by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. This new committee would have wielded power over local school boards and could have ordered surveys administered to children without signed parental consent.

Citizen pressure also slowed the tide of the self-defense restriction bills. Completely stopped were bans on gun possession by law-abiding citizens in various public and private places (HB 95, SB 87, SB 161, and SB 162) and revocation of this important civil right based on a long list of misdemeanors (SB 79 and SB 153). Though several other bills dealing with self-defense issues did pass, many more that appeared destined to pass without significant opposition went down — one after another. The Ogden Standard Examiner wrote:

"Gun rights advocates have been vocal and numerous on Capitol Hill and have vigorously opposed nearly every bill they believe would erode Second Amendment rights…"

Two that did manage to pass, despite intense citizen opposition, enacted ex post facto restrictions on gun possession (HB 161 and SB 72). On the other hand, there was also a bill (HB 199) prohibiting certain frivolous lawsuits against gun manufacturers, which if not checked could open a Pandora's box to frivolous lawsuits over just about anything.

The efforts of the public appeared to be partly responsible for stopping a concerted effort to implement new government health mandates, including mandatory contraception coverage (SB 9) and mandatory catastrophic mental health coverage (HB 123). Also defeated was a proposal to allow citizens to be forcibly committed to mental institutions even if they posed no immediate danger to anyone and had not committed crimes (SB 200).

While one may disagree with the specific legislation supported or opposed, this new, rising wave of citizen involvement has dramatically changed the way many things are done in the Utah legislature and perhaps in general. The evolving power of the individual — the small citizen lobbyist — might bring with it some hostility, insensitivity, or bruised feelings, but it has also thrown an unmistakable wrench into the push for bigger, more intrusive government.

Past trends do not always indicate future results, but this session proves that determined, even angry, citizens can have a dramatic and powerful effect when they "just say no" to attacks on their freedom. Perhaps the intensity of this session will be enough to renew interest in reducing the size and power of government and in protecting fundamental rights.

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Daniel B. Newby wrote this article while employed as Director of Operations & Development for the Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based public policy research institute.

Permission to reprint this article in whole or in part is granted provided credit is given to the author and to the Sutherland Institute.

Disclaimer: Newby left the Sutherland Institute on January 28, 2003, and has conducted all his efforts since that time as a private citizen.  The Sutherland Institute has officially and publicly disavowed and distanced itself from Newby's political views, tone, and activities.  As a courtesy to the Sutherland Institute, we have posted their e-mail on the matter.


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