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Got Accountability?

Try Some Legislative Rules Reforms

There has been a growing debate in the Utah news media about the negative implications of almost absolute Republican control of Utah government. Many in the minority party and news media have promoted the idea of opening Republican legislative caucus meetings to the public. I would oppose the opening of caucus meetings. Closed caucus meetings allow members of each party to freely communicate and debate amongst each other without the threat of having every word be part of the next day’s headlines and to come to the public with some kind of intelligent opinion on issues.

I agree that centering power and control in one party can lead to abuse of power because the efficacy of appropriate checks and balances are reduced. And unfortunately, because the Democrat Party’s position on many issues—especially moral and social—are so reprehensible to most people of conscience in this state, it seems unlikely that is going to change in the near future. The third party options seem even more unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future.

What can be done to increase accountability and openness? I suggest the legislature overhaul the way they do business, to allow and encourage independent thinking. Fundamentally, this means ending the near dictatorship of the Senate President and Speaker of the House.

To a very large degree, the President and Speaker control what happens in the Utah Legislature. They select every member of every committee, including their right hand committee, the Rules Committee, through which almost every bill must travel. The Office of Legislative Research and Council and the Fiscal Analyst’s office report to the President and Speaker. The first drafts bills for the legislator, and the second decides fiscal impacts of bills. Both of these offices have tremendous impact on the viability of bills.

Because of this dictatorial power, many bills never get the proper attention they deserve. If the President or Speaker do not care for a bill, they hold it in the rules committee, assign it to an unfriendly committee, and line up the committee for their preferred vote—making the debate and public comment a sham. The opposite is true for bills they favor.

One of the tactics the Speaker and President use to apply pressure on wayward legislators is a "re-election" Political Action Committee (PAC) in both the House and Senate, which contributes campaign funds to favored legislators and withholds funds from others. With this concentration of power is it any wonder lobbyist and special interest groups give special attention, favors, and re-election funds to the all-powerful President and Speaker?

I spent many years of my life in North Dakota. In its early years of statehood, North Dakota had a history of corrupt machine politics using similar legislative processes Utah now employs. In the latter 1910’s reforms were instituted which decreased the power of the Speaker and President. These reforms were instrumental in reducing the possibility of machine politics in the legislature. In the early 1980’s I served in the North Dakota Legislature, observed and participated in the decentralized and open process that the North Dakota Legislature and its people enjoy.

The following are the reforms I would recommend to the Utah Legislative process. These reforms will bring about a decentralization of power and open the process to a wider range of Legislators and citizens.

  1. Every bill introduced by a Legislator shall go before a committee of the body in which it was introduced. (House or Senate)

  2. The committee shall take action on the bill and report a do pass or do not pass action to the body in which it was introduced.

  3. The committee cannot kill or withhold the bill from the floor of the body in which it was introduced.

  4. The committee must issue a majority report and, if there are members who disagree with the majority decision, they must issue a minority report. Both reports will become part of the official legislative record.

  5. Both the majority and the minority report must be submitted to the floor of the body in which it was introduced before the members of the House or Senate may take a vote.

  6. When a bill is passed in one body (House or Senate) it shall go to the other body and go through and identical process as the first acting body.

  7. No Bill may die because of adjournment. In North Dakota we were required to stop the clock and continue business until all bills were heard and acted on by the full body of the House and Senate. No House or Senate member was paid for the time in which the clock was stopped.

  8. A Legislative Committee is formed (minimum of 5 legislative members) to manage the Office of Legislative Research and General Council and Fiscal Analysis office. The members of the Legislature would elect these members. This would be a House and Senate Committee elected by the House and Senate members. The members of this committee should not have leadership or other committee Chairmanship responsibilities. This action further decentralizes the power of the Legislature.

  9. No bill number should be assigned before the full bill text is publicly available.

  10. Three of the members of each standing committee must be elected by the body. These three members would then select the other members of the committee. In addition, each member of the powerful rules committee would be elected by the body. This action eliminates the bulk of the incongruent Speaker and President powers.

After witnessing the Utah Legislature these last few years, combined with my experience in the North Dakota Legislature the benefits of these reforms are clear. The freshman and the minority party legislator would have just as much opportunity to have a bill heard as the Speaker, President or the most senior member of the Legislature. It forces straight forward, honest, and recorded debate. It eliminates opportunities for machine politics and makes the Legislators distinctly accountable for their floor votes.

I saw this process work and was a part its fruits in North Dakota. Many times the committee majority position was reversed on the floor of the House and Senate because the minority was guaranteed a voice. These are the kinds of checks and balance the Utah Legislature needs, and it needs them today.

F. Kenneth Olafson

4003 S. Las Flores St.

Salt Lake City, UT 84119

Work: (801) 972-3105

Home: (801) 967-9476

Email: fkolaf@qwest.net




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