Tag Archives: Utah State Legislature

Utah Legislature Watch: See what happens when voters pay attention?

So It's A Crime Scene?

Image by makelessnoise via Flickr

House Bill 477 has caused quite the stir up on Capitol Hill, Utah. Let me explain…

No, there is too much. Let me sum up:

Last week, Rep. John Dougall presented House Bill 477 to limit GRAMA (Government Records Access and Management Act) requests from including text messages and instant messages. Within 72 hours, it had passed both House and Senate. Meanwhile, the press and public, not having ever heard of HB 477 before Dougall introduced it, went to work and, in a word, freaked. Commentators and academics started comparing Utah to third world countries like Mexico.

“Point after point, Utah’s record laws are going to be more backward than a Third World country’s,” David Cuillier, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Arizona, said Sunday. “That’s not hyperbole.”

Cuillier pointed out that the Mexican Freedom of Information Act specifies that electronic records be public, greatly restricts what the government can charge for records and places the burden on the government to show why something should not be disclosed.

The Utah bill, HB477, would prohibit the disclosure of text messages and instant messages, allow government agencies to charge fees that can include administrative and overhead costs and require requesters wanting records protected by the government to show with a preponderance of evidence the records should be released.

“In Mexico they favor disclosure, not secrecy,” Cuillier said. “In Utah it would be the other way around.”

Then, just as suddenly as the bill appeared on the docket, legislators started back tracking. First this morning was Sen. Dan Liljenquist, a likely candidate for the US Senate in 2012:

Right behind him was another federal office hopeful, Rep. Carl Wimmer:

And then Holly Richardson, the House’s newest Representative who had gone to bat for the bill on her blog before taking a second look at the issue:

That wasn’t the end of it. Jesse Fruhwirth of the City Weekly reported that Democrats who had supported it were having buyers remorse, as well:

He also compiled a list of legislators who were backtracking that included Sen. John Valentine (a likely candidate for Utah’s Attorney General post) .

Currently, the bill is not dead, but with a threat of a veto hanging over it (a visit to the Governor’s Office will do that), not to mention a full scale public backlash that is as immediate as rallies, phone calls, emails, and 140 characters of Twitter can provide.

Herbert’s office issued a statement last week saying only that “this is a highly charged issue with strong emotions on both sides. He will carefully consider this issue and weigh all options.” Also, Herbert has said he was not involved in drafting the bill.” His office did not immediately comment on developments on Monday.

Meanwhile, the bill is currently in “recall,” meaning it could still be passed. Sen. Waddups, President of the Senate, and Speaker Lockhart have both indicated that they have no interest in angering constituents or fighting a veto from the Governor.

I can’t help but note that the first two people to respond were two politicians with big ambitions for high federal office. Those that followed shortly there after had similar ambitions, if for other elective offices. That’s the power of voters showing up, not just on election day, but when it matters.

Meanwhile, intrepid reporter Billy Hesterman wonders about how popular Angry Birds is up at the Utah legislature.

I can’t wait to see that GRAMA request roll through the House.

APROPOS: Kudos to former candidate Jeremy Votaw for getting love from Paul Rolly in the Trib for Votaw’s online petition to get HB477 vetoed.

(h/t to the City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, and, of course, all of #utpol on Twitter)

Utah Legislature Watch: a few bills I’m following

Conservative, moderate or liberal: there have been a few bills that bug me this session of the Utah Legislature, and there have been a few that I liked that just aren’t making it. Here are four that sample both.

  • One I liked: As biker, I liked Senator Niederhauser’s bill that would have allowed bikers at a stop sign to just slow down and not come to a full stop. I do that already, but it would have been nice to do it without looking for a police car. On a vote of 11-11, the Senate killed the bill. Arguing against the bill, Sen. Van Tassell from Vernal (do people ride bikes around in Vernal?) compared bikes to semi-trucks…? You know, because of the size similarities and how much bikers and semi-trucks are alike when it comes to the ability to hurt others.  Regardless, the bill is dead, and bikers will keep doing what they did before; slowing, then continuing through stop signs.
  • One I disliked: As a human being, I have not been impressed with the bills that Stephen Sandstrom has proposed to deal with immigration. I agree that the US immigration system is complicated, that a ton of people move here without going through the system (i.e. by way of the”the Southern Border Triathlon” consisting of run, climb, or swim), and I think that it needs to be fixed. However, it has become a source for demagogues to grandstand, and I think Sandstrom’s bill does little to help the problem. In fact, it uses standards that are very likely discriminatory, expensive, and likely unconstitutional.  Fortunately, Senate President Michael Waddups recognizes questionable language when he sees it, especially when it leads to racial profiling: “It did matter,” Waddoups said. “Everyone associates that as dealing with racial profiling. We don’t want to have that in there.” Besides, I’m not really convinced that the state’s have any business enforcing immigration in the first place without cooperation of the federal government.
  • One I am unsure about: HB477 makes changes to Utah’s GRAMA law. Proposed by Rep. John Dougall, who Speaker Lockhart called “an idea guy.” I’ve met him, listened to him pontificate on his ideas, and he is a smart and articulate guy. He does his homework. The intent of the law is to keep open records requests reasonable so the already slow workings of government can’t be overwhelmed by responding to the requests, usually by the press. It’s laudable. However, so is the reason we have the law in the first place–to make sure government and politicians are accountable. It’s a balancing act, and I am not sure which way the HB477 changes will tip the balance. And that’s why I’m unsure about it. (Also, check out this piece of “gotcha” journalism when a bored reporter chased down the Governor on this bill)
  • One more I like: Statewide Online Education Program sponsored by Sen. Howard Stephenson. The bill allows access to school materials anywhere in the state, but withholds most of the payment until most of the course is finished, to ensure completion. Some on the left have complained that it takes money from public schools–I’m ok with that, since the people using it aren’t getting any benefit from the public schools, anyway. This bill just appears to redistribute to them the value they would have received if they were in the school.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but a sampling. There are lots of bills still floating around the marbled halls of the Utah Capitol, and I do mean lots. Which are you following?

Utah Legislature Watch: Debate over ‘Democracy’ or ‘Republic?’

Worth it or not, it’s an interesting discussion…for political scientists.

Just kidding. But really: I do think it is an interesting discussion, and I do think it ought to be taught right in our schools. But should Utah legislators be getting their panties in a bunch over it? I’m dubious. They aren’t the most educated gaggle of geese out there honking in the wind; dictating every bit of what ought to be in the public education curriculum might be a bridge too far for me to concede is worth their time.

But back to the point: democracy or republic? One of my favorite blogs to follow–Utah Data Points–has done a little research into the use of ‘republic’ versus ‘democracy’ over the last couple centuries. Adam Brown (who writes the blog) makes two observations I find both interesting and relevant:

  1. Republic‘ and ‘democracy’ have fluxed and flipped over our history; and
  2. Each word’s popularity correlates to references to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, respectively, over the same time period.

Have a look at the first graph from Utah Data Points, showing which word was more popular:

As Brown explains

It turns out that the word “republic” was far more common than “democracy” up until around 1900 in American English. There was a rapid shift between about 1900 and 1920 as “democracy” came into vogue, displacing “republic.” This shift peaked around 1940.

Now, here’s the graph showing references to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson over the same time:

Interesting, eh? Brown speculates that the reason for the shift was the increase in democratic type initiatives around the turn of the last century.

Initiatives, recalls, and referendums are collectively known as “direct democracy.” Just about every state that adopted some form of direct democracy did so between 1898 and 1918. In fact, Utah was among the first to adopt direct democracy institutions. We have both an initiative (e.g. failed ethics reform initiative) and a referendum process (e.g. vouchers overturned) here but no recall.

And the correlation between the two graphs? Perhaps no link… or perhaps there is. Jefferson did tend to talk and write more about the right of individuals and democratic rule, while Adams tends to be seen as fearing “the mob” that was the masses, preferring rule by the more educated elites.

In other words, Jefferson was a populist associated with direct democracy while Adams was an elitist associated with governance by the elected representatives of the people.

And there’s an irony for you: Jefferson is the man who conservatives and the Tea Party seem to quote most often, even while crying “foul!” at the appellation of the label “democracy” on the type of government we have.

John Adams was opposed to promotion of officer...

John Adams, late in life. Image via Wikipedia


Can legislation save the world?

William Howard Taft

“The world is not going to be saved by legislation,” William Howard Taft said.

An interesting discussion by Salt Lake’s LaVarr Webb and Frank Pignanelli on who legislators listen to: constituents or lobbyists.

(h/t Deseret News)

Utah Legislature Watch: Some Conservatives don’t like Con-cons

Utah State Capitol in 2002

The Utah Capitol (Image via Wikipedia)

Even after the rise and vengeance of the Tea Party in elections last November, the political right still does not agree on how to carry out its goals. One of the oft shouted stated calls by activists, shrinking federal power and returning to a balance of power between the states and federal government (see also “federalism”), is a source of particular debate, discussion, and disagreement.

Yesterday, blogger and Utah state Rep.Holly Richardson (R, Pleasant Grove) wrote on her blog, and in a guest post here, asking whether it isn’t time for Article V amendments to the Constitution to rein in the growth of federal powers vis-à-vis the states.  In raising the possibility of a limited convention for specific constitutional amendments, she argued that

If the Founding Fathers were truly concerned with the overgrowth of the federal government – and certainly all evidence points to that as a primary concern – then the inclusion of Article V is not an accident. It was meant to be one more check by the states on the federal government.

Her post was timed to coincide with Utah state Rep. Brad Daw’s (R-Orem) proposal that the Utah legislature call for a national convention to write a balanced budget amendment.  Such an amendment would make it impossible for the federal debt limit to be raised.

Rep. Daw’s bill failed to get out of committee in a 5-5 vote that had conservative Republicans joining with Democrats to kill it. Ironic. According to the Salt Lake Tribune

[…] various conservative groups, including the Eagle Forum, the John Birch Society, the 9/12 Project and others argued that calling a constitutional convention would open a Pandora’s Box and any amendment could be on the table.

As always, politics makes strange bedfellows.

A similar proposal by Rep. Dave Clark (R-Santa Clara), which would call for a constitutional convention for an amendment that would allow states to repeal federal laws, was tabled when he saw the vote on Rep. Daw’s bill. Rep. Clark’s proposal is closely patterned after and intended to work with a proposal sponsored by Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah 1)  in the U.S. House of Representatives.

A sampling of the comments on Holly’s blog indicates a shadow of the fervor the conservative right feels about the potential for damage in an Article V convention, limited in scope, that morphs into a constitutional convention, a.k.a. a “con-con,” that is not limited in scope.

David Kyle said

I’m totally and very strongly against calling any type of Con-Con. What a mistake it would be to think that the very people that don’t obey our current Constitution would be entrusted to set the new rules, write a new one or make amendments in a vein attempt to fix it?!

Rod Mann worried about a convention going rogue:

At a Constitutional Convention is there any limit to the number of amendments that can be proposed? Answer No
– Is there a limit to the scope of these amendments? Answer No
– Do we think that the attendees representing the states will be anywhere near as qualified to discuss constitutional issues, theories of government, … as the attendees of the original convention. My answer not likely
– Who will end up attending the convention? The most qualified or the best connected? My answer in general the least qualified and best connected

…and so on. (Oh, and there was talk of nullification, too, an idea that should have died with the institution of slavery in the 1860s…but that’s for another day and another post.)

One colleague of mine, in a more rational moment of the debate, indicated that such a resort–to amendment and convention–was beyond what was necessary. We already have the resources in our current legal structure, he argued, and those ought to be used first before resort to amending the document that governs the nation.

Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer

Image via Wikipedia

He may have a point. But so does Holly. The federal constitution was drafted to include checks and balances, including multiple methods amendment. Each method was to give the states a way to check the power of the federal government, as well as for federal representatives of the people to check states against tyranny of their people. (That’s right…in this day and age, no one seems to remember that it is the federal government that has dragged the states kicking and screaming into the modern age by requiring more rights be allowed to their citizens.) No one wants a convention that will ripe apart the federal constitution; at the same time, amending to the constitution was in line with what the Founders anticipated by including Article V within its frame-work.

At this time, I am not ready to support that the time has come for amendment to the federal constitution by way of either an Article V convention or a con-con; however, I do think that the amendment process should be stripped of stigma and the fear that prevents a rational discussion. Government works best when citizens are educated, informed, engaged in improving it. Discussion about the relevant avenues of making those improvements should include amendment  and, yes, even constitutional conventions.

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