This is the second in a series of articles that examine CitizensForTaxFairness.org’s ongoing work on legislative reform.
According to CitizensForTaxFairness.org, Washington style politics are alive and well at the Utah State legislature. Professional, paid lobbyists have ready access to legislators due to a constant flow of money, invitations to special events and campaign assistance. Lobbyists openly talk about how many legislators they have brought into the legislature, how they kill bills that they disapprove of and of high success rates in getting bills they support passed.
Lobbyists have the cell phone numbers of legislators so they can call and text then at all times. Lobbyists help draft legislation and then orchestrate its passage. Powerful chambers of commerce organize carefully controlled and scripted weekly meetings with the legislative delegations from Wasatch front counties where they tell legislators how they want them to vote on key legislation.
As in Washington, controversial legislation is all too often brought forth late in the session and rushed through by heavy handed legislative leadership without giving the public or legislators time to read, review or react to it. In these cases, leadership may even threaten legislators who oppose them with a wide range of sanctions. Legislative oversight of the executive branch and other entities that the legislature funds is largely ignored as legislators rush to pass literally hundreds of bills in a short, forty-five calendar day session.
CitizensForTaxFairness.org has seven proposals that address the problem of Washington style politics at the Utah State legislature.
1. Give the public and legislators time to read and review all bills
2. Level the playing field – provide equal texting/calling access to all citizens.
3. Identify who is behind each piece of legislation.
4. No more pay-to-play caucuses.
5. More oversight; fewer Bills.
6. No per diem or lodging payments for legislators without a receipt.
7. No health insurance for legislators.
1. Give the public and legislators time to read and review all bills. All too often legislative leadership resorts to Washington style politics on the most critical issues in order to steam roll unpopular bills through the legislature or to provide benefits for special interests.
During the 2011 session, the legislature rammed through HB477 which impacted the citizens’ right to information without full vetting. The public outcry that occurred force the legislature to quickly repeal the bill.
Likewise, legislative leaders passed HB116 in the dead of night using parliamentary tricks without full vetting and under great pressure from extremely powerful and influential lobbyists who were camped out in the House and Senate restricted areas. HB116 has subsequently been described as Utah’s unconstitutional illegal alien amnesty bill that provides a captive workforce for employers of illegal aliens and that relegates illegal aliens to little more than involuntary servitude. Republican delegates to the state Republican Convention and a number of county conventions disavowed the action of the legislature and called on Republican legislators to repeal and replace HB116.
Action. Require that all legislation with very limited exceptions be available to the public before the first day of any regular session and at least 48 hours, not including weekends and holidays, before a special session. Require a 2/3 vote of both houses to approve a bill that is introduced after the start of the session and not available for a review by legislators and the public for a minimum of 48 hours, not including weekends or holidays, before it is heard in committee. Require a 2/3 vote of both houses to pass any boxcar bill or bill that has not had the requisite committee hearing. Require a 2/3 vote of both houses to pass a substitute bill with anything more than narrow technical changes unless it has been made available to legislators and the public for a minimum of 48 hours, not including weekends or holidays.
2. Level the playing field – provide equal texting/calling access to all citizens. During the legislative session the ability to quickly and frequently contact legislators is a distinct advantage. It is, therefore, inappropriate for the taxpayer funded cell phone numbers of legislators to be withheld from the citizens who pay for them while being shared with lobbyists and other select individuals.
Action. Require that all taxpayer funded cell phone numbers be made public so all citizens can text and call legislators on these publicly funded devices. Prohibit the use of personal cell phones or other electronic devices when the legislature is officially in session to maintain a level playing field for all citizens.
3. Identify who is behind each piece of legislation. Ideas for legislation are frequently brought to legislators by various groups including constituents, the bureaucracy, social justice organizations, think tanks and, of course, by the many highly paid lobbyists who are constantly present. The person or group bringing the bill to the legislator may also provide the legislator with wording for the proposed legislation.
Knowing who is behind a piece of legislation provides both citizens and legislators with a better understanding of a bill. For example, if the Utah Association of Realtors and a group of land developers are behind a bill to move the prison to a new location, making that information public allows both citizens and legislators to better determine if the move is being proposed in the public interest or for a private interest or both.
Action. Include a note on each bill identifying who asked the legislator to carry the bill and/or who has contributed to its drafting.
4. No more “pay-to-play” meetings. Many special interests ranging from the taxpayer funded League of Cities and Towns to Chambers of Commerce hold meetings including special luncheons with large numbers of legislators during the session to promote their agendas. These are generally closed to the public and, in virtually all cases, the public is denied the opportunity to present their points of view.
An egregious example of how this process works came to light during the 2011 session when the Davis Chamber of Commerce banned the public from weekly early morning meetings with legislators at the state capitol. According to the Davis Chamber, businesses, public officials, etc. pay to be members of the Chamber. They then pay an additional fee to be on the Chamber’s legislative committee in order to have access to and be able to influence legislators at weekly, early morning caucus meetings. The meetings are attended by the entire Davis county legislative delegation.
If citizens were allowed to attend these meeting, which are held in taxpayer funded facilities, Chamber members wouldn’t have the exclusive access to legislators that they pay for and if citizens were allowed to speak, it would not allow the Chamber to control the message. Citizens were, therefore, told that if they wished to attend, they would have to pay to join the Chamber and then pay again to be on the legislative committee.
Action. Require that all meetings organized by special interest groups that multiple legislators routinely attend be open to the public. End the process where access to legislators is sold by interest groups for their private benefit and profit. Also, require that members of the public be granted the opportunity to comment on legislation being discussed in any meeting that is open to the public.
5. More oversight; fewer Bills. The legislature spends most of its time on up to eight hundred new bills without reading or really understanding most of them. It spends far too little time ensuring that existing legislation is either complied with or repealed. Billions of dollars are allocated with little or no follow-up resulting in $13 million dollar payouts in highway contract disputes, corruption in state run liquor stores and the misappropriation of funds by the bureaucracy.
Action. Ensure that substantial time is set aside for the oversight of government operations and the implementation and enforcement of existing laws. This will result in fewer bills passed, good laws enforced and bad laws repealed.
6. No per diem or lodging payments for legislators without a receipt. All legislators currently receive lodging and per diem payments even if they do not incur expenses. This practice smacks of the House banking scandal and Congress’ ability to participate in insider stock trading. In addition, it unfairly benefits legislators living in the Provo-Salt Lake City-Ogden metro area because, for the most part, they live at home during the session and do not incur the same lodging or meal costs that their colleagues from other areas of the state do.
It should be noted that the Utah House actually addressed this issue during the 2011 regular session with strong support and encouragement from Tea Party groups. The House passed a bill late in the session by a large majority. That bill contained substantial reforms but the Utah state Senate failed to take action, thereby, killing it and keeping the current system in place.
Action: Effective immediately, lodging reimbursements and per diem should only be paid when legislators are away from home for more than 24 hours on official legislative business and when receipts are presented.
7. No health insurance for legislators. A citizen legislator serves the citizens and should not receive better benefits than those he serves. Citizen legislators should rely on their own health insurance not on the state employees’ health benefit program. Under no circumstances should legislators qualify for the state health insurance program for the rest of their lives once they have ten years in the legislature. This encourages Washington style career politicians and results in elected officials being treated better than those who elect them. Likewise, officials appointed to part-time boards and other positions should not be eligible for the state health plan.
Action. End the access to the state health care program for legislators. Also, end the practice of providing access to state health insurance program to members of boards, commissions, etc.
The next article in this series will examine ideas for enhancing transparency in the law-making process.