Bob Bernick's Notebook: SB 54 is a Political Life or Death Matter for Lawmakers

Written by Bob Bernick on . Posted in Today At Utah Policy

Rich McKeown, president of the Count My Vote citizen initiative, said Thursday that his group will begin a serious media campaign against SB54.

 

That’s the bill, sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, that would allow political party leaders to make a few changes to their candidate nomination processes and bypass the CMV petition for direct primaries (should CMV ultimately be adopted by Utah voters this coming November.)

Through their media campaign, it appears to me the CMV supporters are looking at a repeat of the HB477 legislative disaster of 2011 to somehow kill SB54.

But it’s not going to happen with Bramble’s bill.

First, a quick summary of HB477: It was a GOP-leadership effort to change the state’s GRAMA law to, among other things, stop financial abuse by folks trying to get state and local government records aside from hiding some of the lawmakers’ emails from public and media view.

But it did other things that upset both Republican and Democratic grassroots, citizen activists and especially the media.

A great deal of (shall I say it?) crap came down on lawmakers’ heads (mostly Republicans, Democratic legislators wisely got out of the way).

Republicans got huffy and passed HB477. Then GOP Gov. Gary Herbert told lawmakers to take it back and change it. They did. Then Herbert signed it, then called a special session where legislators repealed it.

But I don’t believe such tactics will work this time.

Why?

Because at the very core, CMV and SB54 strike at sitting legislators’ ability to get re-elected.

In short, any legislator looking to run for re-election this year, in 2014, had better support SB54 or run the very real risk of losing his seat.

Even for the 15 state senators who don’t face re-election until 2016, a vote against SB54 this year could come back to haunt them.

An officeholder simply can’t tell their delegates to drop dead – that you don’t care about them.

It’s political suicide –whether the legislators will admit it or not.

That’s why really good lawmakers, and good people, like Sens. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, and Karen Mayne, D-West Valley, voted this week for SB54.

Here is the SB54 2nd Reading vote.

Only two senators voted against it – Sens. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, who is retiring this year; and Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake.

Dabakis’ vote is interesting, because he is the state Democratic Party chairman. The state Democratic delegates actually put him into the chairmanship. But rumor has it Dabakis is not going to run for chairman a third time in the summer of 2015. If that is true, he doesn’t have to worry about delegate support for that job. And if CMV passes, he doesn’t have to worry about his delegates ever again.

Anyway, a recent Dan Jones & Associates poll found that 8 percent of Democrats favor the current caucus convention system.

About 80 percent of Democrats favor Count My Vote and it’s direct primaries.

Why would Mayne vote for a bill that 80 percent of her party constituents don’t like?

Again, it is hometown politics.

Mayne and her late husband, Eddie, were, and still are, much loved in the Kearns/West Valley area.

But Mayne’s Senate District 5 is changing.

Eddie Mayne was the state AFL-CIO president, and labor has traditionally been a power-player of Salt Lake County Democratic politics.

Now there are fewer union members in West Valley, less influence in local Democratic politics.

Minorities, especially Hispanics, are moving into the area, and playing a greater role in county politics.

In 2012, long-time Rep. Neal Hendrickson, a West Valley Democrat, was challenged by a Hispanic woman within the party. Hendrickson, a labor man, couldn’t eliminate her in the Democratic Salt Lake County Convention; and he lost to her in a party primary.

Sen. Mayne faces the same situation – she may be better known, better liked, than Hendrickson.

But Mayne can’t ignore her delegates. She can’t afford to anger them by voting to put them out of business, because she needs them to help protect her politically from District 5’s changing voter pool.

Hillyard isn’t afraid of losing his seat to a Democrat, even to a Republican.

He, like Mayne, is much loved in Cache County. But his GOP delegates have been voting him into office year after year, first in the House, then in the Senate, since 1980.

That’s right, for 34 years. He owes these delegates, a lot.

Even though it’s likely that Cache County Republicans are nearly 2-1 in favor of Count My Vote, even though thousands of Cache Valley citizens are signing the CMV petition, Hillyard cannot turn his back on these delegates.

That’s why a public “education” campaign, to be launched by CMV over the next two weeks, most likely won’t turn any legislative votes against SB54.

It would have been nice for the 2011 legislative Republicans to get HB477. They wouldn’t have seen some of their emails become public under GRAMA. The legislative staff wouldn’t have been forced to spend hundreds of hours on GRAMA requests – because HB477 would have allowed large data-gathering costs to be assessed against those making the requests.

But legislators could turn against HB477 after the media and various citizen groups howled against them, because it only cost them a bit of embarrassment to switch sides.

SB54 is very different.

It represents legislators’ political lives.

And for that, they will dig in their heels and vote for it – even if the citizens in their districts are dead-set against it; even if radio and TV ads by CMV blast them; even if local newspapers’ editorials call them all kinds of names.

It doesn’t matter.

If Herbert vetoes SB54 – as he’s hinted -- legislators may very well get two-thirds votes in the House and Senate to override that veto. (It got six more votes than needed for an override in Thursday’s Senate vote.)

Forget all the lawmaker rhetoric favoring SB54, it’s all self-serving gobbly-gook.

The first and overriding thirst for legislators is political survival.

And a vote against SB54 turns off the delegate water tap, clear and simple.



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