A bill that will seriously alter the political makeup of two key legislative committees advanced Wednesday.
HB 220 – Legislative Organization Amendments, sponsored by Representative LaVar Christensen (Republican – Draper), would add two additional Republicans to the Legislative Management Committee and the Legislative Audit Subcommittee. At present, an equal number of Democrats and Republicans serve on both committees.
Christensen contends his proposal is designed to help better represent the people and keep things running smoothly. “I would submit that House Bill 220 restores to our legislative organization and management the proportionality that is implicit in fundamental principles of representative democracy and representative government. Currently, our Legislative Management Committee and our Audit Subcommittee dilutes and denies the natural effect and outcome of the voice of the people as expressed through the election process.”
He believes this is a more equitable way of running things on Capitol Hill. “Everyone is free to choose. Everyone is free to advocate their beliefs and then the people make their choice. But I, for the life of me, don’t understand why we would ever come back and choose a structure that alters or artificially somehow denies the full effect of that representative outcome,” said Christensen.
The Legislative Management Committee is charged with setting the interim committee schedule, assigning study items to interim committees, approves the creation of subcommittees and task forces, and coordinates the hiring of non-partisan staff. The Legislative Audit Subcommittee handles new audit requests, prioritizes approved audits, and hear and release audit reports.
Originally created in 1975 by the passage of SB 218 – Legislative Organization, the Legislative Management Committee in effect replaced the Utah Legislative Council, which had been created in 1945 for interim research. At the time, Democrats held the House, Senate, and Governorship.
The sponsor of SB 218, former Senator Karl N. Snow, Jr. (Republican – Provo), sent a letter to the committee expressing his opposition to Christensen’s bill. He believes the change will unnecessarily politicize committees that should be devoid of politics. “No matter how one describes it, that is exactly what will transpire if a political party dominates the supervisory process in proportion to its total membership. Under the best of circumstances organizations struggle to ensure professional staff independence to counter built in dominance of thought or design.”
Nolan Karras, Speaker of the House from 1989 to 1990, also wrote a note sharing his concerns. “During my term in office, we faced similar circumstances to those faced now in the legislature, that is, an overwhelming majority of Republicans in both Houses. Even with large majorities in both Houses, we did not make any changes to the past practice preferring to leave the Management Committee evenly split as a signal to the nonpartisan staff that they were to not act in the interest of one party versus the other party. From my view, this practice worked well over my 10 years of service.” Karras said that the ability to outvote the minority party on any issue before the Legislature made the practice of equal representation on the committee a non-issue.
Chase Thomas, associate director of policy and advocacy at the Alliance for a Better Utah, believes HB 220 will inject partisanship into something that should be decidedly nonpartisan.
“These committees are meant to support the work of all legislators in their efforts to represent the people of Utah, not just those in the majority. This bill would silence the minority in one of the last places in the Legislature where a truly bipartisan work is accomplished,” said Thomas.
Testifying before the committee, Representative Brad King (Democrat – Price) expressed his fear of how Christensen’s proposal might effect the hiring of non-partisan staff.
“The outcome is that when we hire somebody, we are assured that it has the stamp of both bodies, both the minority and the majority. The reason why that makes a difference is because when you’re having someone give legal advice, draft bills, and other things, you want to be sure that they are not partisan and they aren’t beholding to any party.” He believes the current structure has worked well and this is a “solution looking for a problem,” said King.
Representative Patrice Arent (Democrat – East Millcreek) has a unique perspective on the matter, in that she has served on the Legislative Management Committee on and off since the late 1990s and was formerly associate general counsel to the Legislature.
Arent believes the bill will inject partisanship into the situation. She told the committee that those who work at the Legislature do so because of their dedication to public service, desire to work in a non-partisan environment, and longing for integrity and professional independence. “If they know their boss is hired by one [political] party, it changes – it dramatically changes their working environment. It will not be the same.”
Arent also worries about the increased costs associated with hiring partisan staff and that it will make the Legislature more like Congress.
Representative Brad Daw (Republican – Orem) said it is a fair solution. “We do elect a Speaker and a President to represent the entire membership of the bodies, then it would seem to me that the Majority and Minority leader would be more inclined to represent the interests of their respective caucuses, so it appears to me to be a more equitable and reasonable system.”
Like some fellow Republicans, Representative Fred Cox (West Valley City) has concerns about audit selection, but he also worries about changing the system. “I do believe that we can improve things from where they are, but I’m not sure that this is the method to do that.”
Arent said that she has heard concerns about audits being done too slowly, but that is due to not having enough staff members rather than partisan rancor. “Maybe the solution that we’re looking for is to increase our audit staff.”
Following the committee meeting, Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck (Democrat – Salt Lake City) issued a statement criticizing the bill. “The responsibilities of these groups need to be above partisan politics – above the gridlock we see in Washington. A change like this impacts the ability of future legislators to effectively govern the state, regardless of political party. We owe it to the people of Utah to protect processes within the institution that have existed before any of us, and will continue long after we are gone.”
Assuring committee members that there won’t be any partisanship, discord, or lack of harmony resulting from the proposed change, Christensen noted that it’s not a partisan effort. “It wouldn’t matter to me if I was on the other side. There was a time, as they’ve tried to show the history. I wish those that cite decades now could perhaps be as loyal to maybe some of the values that have been so time-honored for so long.”
On the subject of the Utah Democratic Party’s waning influence, Christensen told Democrats to take a good, long look at themselves. “Go make your case to the voters. Ask yourself why. Why have the numbers shifted so much over those 40 [years]. Why are you having 12 instead of 51 or 41. Go look at the views, the values, the options, the principles, and what the voice of the people are saying. Look up at that dais every day and think about the voice of the people, the voice of the people.”
The House Government Operations Committee voted 6-3 to favorably recommend the bill. It now heads to the full House. The dissenting votes were Cox, Arent, and Chavez-Houck.