Dems go on Defense to Stop Non-Partisan Board Bill

Representative Norm Thurston (Republican – Provo)

On Tuesday, Representative Norm Thruston (Republican – Provo) presented HB 11 – State Boards and Commissions Amendments to the House Government Operations Committee, encountering strong opposition from the two sitting Democrats on the committee.

Thurston started his presentation by explaining his rationale behind that bill that aims to remove the need for a bipartisan balance on 29 commissions within state government – explaining  that he essentially looked at the 400+ boards and commissions that currently exist in the state, filtered out all but the roughly 80 that currently have a partisan committee requirement (a statement that says that a majority of members can not be affiliated with one political party), and, from there removed any committee that did not have a specific judicial and/or legislative purpose behind it to arrive to the list he provided to the Government Operations.

“The are not political boards, there is nothing partisan here…and if the current or future governor wanted to stack the boards with their friends, it’s not that hard to do under current law,” Thurston told the committee adding that, “though [the boards] are political because of the nature of the work they do, they are not inherently partisan – for example the Livestock Market Committee. That’s not a partisan issue.”

Thurston would conclude by making the proclamation that there are no partisan policy differences on these boards before introducing Cherilyn Bradford, Boards and Commissions Director, Jacey Skinner, General Counsel for the governor, and Mike Mower, Deputy Chief of Staff for the governor.

Bradford, after questioning from Representative Patrice Arent (Democrat – Millcreek), did note that the partisan requirement was just one of many reasons why people may not serve on boards.

Arent passively remarked that perhaps the entire issue could be addressed by giving the governor’s office the resources it needs. “Having been in the Democratic caucus for many years, I can honestly say that no one ever called us – perhaps [the governor’s office] isn’t casting a wide enough net.” This sentiment was echoed later by Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck (Democrat – Salt Lake City) who said that she feels this is a policy solution to what amounts to an administrative issue – jokingly adding that she would be happy to provide “binders full of Democrats” to the governor’s office.

When pressed by Arent, Thurston could not provide an example of someone who was turned away from a board position due to their party affiliation, just that some people are hesitant. Mower did provide one example where an individual wished to sit on the Tax Commission but had changed their party affiliation from unaffiliated to Republican in order to vote in the closed GOP primary – as rules require the state to look at the most recent presidential election to determine affiliation, the individual not considered for the position.

Mower attempted to calm Democratic angst by stating that “[the governor’s office recognizes] the concerns of the Democratic Party and in no way want to exclude them from any board in government… Our goal is to pick the best person and look beyond labels.”

Arent was unconvinced: “I would like to know the rationale and issues you are having on these 29 committees….having diversity in your background does make a difference.” Chavez-Houck would also press Mower further by asking how, if this legislation were to pass, the state could prevent stacked decks. Mower noted that the legislature provides a check to the governors appointment power, at wich time Chavez-Houck reminded Mower and the committee of the current Republican supermajority today and how that wouldn’t inherently prevent abuses down the road.

Several members of the public expressed concerned that HB 11 was in fact a partisan bill in disguise, noting that commissions such as the Air Quality Board, Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, and Board of Oil, Gas, and Mining, though not technically political, represent issues that have become partisan.

Thruston appeared to be somewhat dismissive of the public comment, noting that his legislation has been discussed over the past year and discussion of the list boards he is looking to change have been available for some time. Arent quickly informed Thruston that the legislative session has only been taking place for two days and that it is the most common time for the public to take interest in the first place.

Thurston reminded the committee prior to a vote to advance the bill to the House floor that the most important factor that the state can and does consider when staffing the 29 boards is if the individual is qualified to sit on the board in the first place, with partisanship being a secondary thought.

In an attempt to pump the breaks on the legislation, Representative Arent attempted to hold the bill to allow the committee to better study what kind of expertise and experience is actually needed to sit on each board listed, however, her motion failed along party lines. Ultimately, HB 11 was successfully voted out of committee on a vote of 6-3.

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