Try Some Legislative Rules
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
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
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
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.
Every bill introduced by a
Legislator shall go before a committee of the body in which
it was introduced. (House or Senate)
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.
The committee cannot kill or
withhold the bill from the floor of the body in which it was
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
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.
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.
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
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.
No bill number should be
assigned before the full bill text is publicly available.
- 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
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
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
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