The group is called the Constitutional Revision Commission.
And members have included future leaders of the LDS Church, legal luminaries, top legislators and Supreme Court justices.
The CRC still exists. Its members are here.
But the last time the 14-member body met was Feb. 7, 2011 – to do what they are supposed to do, review potential state constitutional amendments proposed by the 104-member Legislature.
Current CRC chair Jon Memmott, a retired district court judge, former director of Legislative Research and General Counsel and top attorney for former Gov. Norm Bangerter, says considering what has happened over the last two years, he’s satisfied to let the 2012 elections pass, then sit down with the new legislative leadership of both parties and “offer again ourselves (the CRC) as a valuable source of consultation, if they want to take advantage of us.”
A little political history puts into perspective how the CRC, once active in Utah, often meeting monthly and undertaking extensive reviews of the current Constitution as well as possible amendments, has now become little more than an afterthought.
The CRC was formed under state law more than 30 years ago, when former Govs. Calvin Rampton and Scott M. Matheson believed that Utah’s most basic document needed to be modernized.
Section by section, the Constitution was reviewed and under CRC supervision suggestions made to leading legislators to sponsor amendments.
At the same time, legislators who sought changes to the Constitution routinely brought their resolutions before the CRC for consideration. The group was, and is, totally advisory. The CRC has no power to stop or change amendments.
Under state law, only the Legislature can pass a constitutional amendment. If approved by two-thirds of lawmakers from both the House and Senate, the proposed amendment goes on the next general election ballot for citizen vote. The governor has no official say on amendments – unlike bills and budgets they don’t go to him for veto or signature.
Citizens can’t change the state Constitution via a citizen initiative petition. A majority vote at the polls is needed for adoption.
For some time (this tactic has been used more and more recently), legislators who had controversial amendments – which may be opposed by the CRC – declined to take them to the commission.
Especially conservative GOP legislators with some questionable amendments would just introduce them (often towards the end of a 45-day general session) and run them without CRC input.
(The CRC used to meet at least once during the general session to consider introduced amendments. It did not meet during the 2012 Legislature because no controlling authority approved of such a meeting.)
As GOP lawmakers found that the CRC was not endorsing their proposed amendments, or even opposed them, frustration grew over the CRC.
It became a bumpy political relationship.
A dozen years ago, the then-speaker of the Utah House (leaders tended to put themselves on the CRC because of its importance) missed a CRC meeting. The minority leader of the House, a Democrat, under “other business” on the agenda, brought up the possibility that the CRC should consider a controversial GOP-backed amendment that passed the previous general session, but had not been reviewed by the commission.
The motion passed. And over that summer the CRC heard, and ultimately opposed, the amendment – scheduled for a citizen vote in the fall.
Utah Democratic Party leaders then used the CRC opposition – among other items – to slam the proposed agenda on the ballot.
GOP lawmakers were not pleased. In fact, in the next Legislature they passed a bill that said the CRC couldn’t even CONSIDER an amendment after the Legislature had voted by 2/3rds to put it on the ballot. Some called the new law the “gag the CRC” provision.
However, even after that provision passed, some leaders on the CRC still reviewed and voted on amendments after legislative action.
The CRC/GOP leadership relationship got worse a few years ago when several leading conservatives – Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield and Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem among them – discussed a constitutional amendment banning affirmative action by any government in Utah, including public colleges and universities.
Oda, in fact, introduced HJR24 in the 2010 Legislature.
Language was put in the resolution late in the session. The CRC held a quick meeting and asked Oda to explain it. The bill ultimately passed a House standing committee, but in a firestorm of last-minute political tactics and public concern Oda agreed to kill it before the session ended.
Rumors kept circulating that Dayton may introduce a similar measure in the 2011 Legislature, although no such bill was ultimately introduced.
During the 2010 interim, the CRC held several meetings where affirmative action was discussed, but no firm action was taken – CRC members deciding to wait to see if such an amendment was ultimately introduced in the general session.
But at a few of the CRC meetings, several members – as well as members of the public – criticized lawmakers who may introduce controversial amendments for not bringing their ideas to the CRC well before the general sessions.
Instead of debating an affirmative action amendment, GOP legislators in the 2011 Legislature decided to stop the CRC from meeting on its own.
In a bill sponsored by Dayton that also restricted the Tax Review Commission from meeting on its own, lawmakers took away the power of the CRC to meet as its own members wished.
The new law says only the governor, or legislative leadership (controlled by Republicans), or the Legislature as a whole via resolution can call the CRC into a meeting.
Memmott says he has “heard nothing” from either the governor or legislative leadership (meeting as the Legislative Management Committee) about the CRC meeting since the law was passed 18 months ago. And it has not met since February 2011.
Memmott doesn’t anticipate either Herbert or GOP leaders will ask the CRC to meet to review the two amendments on this November’s ballot.
“What has happened, for whatever reason, (the CRC) has become viewed as political,” said Memmott, a Republican. “My view is that the CRC is non-political. But it has been seen (by some legislators) as involved, in part, in political decisions. That is unfortunate. My intent as chair is to be a resource to the Legislature and governor, nothing more.
“You have a lot of people (on the CRC) with expertise and the time to volunteer their services,” says Memmott.
In fact, while the CRC does have a small budget, little is actually needed financially. The Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel is the staff for the group. They are already being paid.
Citizen CRC members aren’t given a per diem at all. “I pay for my own gas when I drive up to the Capitol,” where the CRC meets, said Memmott.
“The only members of the CRC who get paid are the legislators who sit on it.”
For lawmakers, it is a paid legislative day, Memmott noted.
To be fair, says Memmott, he has briefly viewed the two amendments on the ballot this November and doesn’t see them as controversial – so citizens may not suffer ignorance if the CRC doesn’t make a recommendation on either ballot proposition. The two amendments are here and here.
“Neither of these are controversial,” said Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake, who sits on the CRC. “I voted for both of them.”
“But it is troubling that the CRC hasn’t been consulted on either.”
McAdams, who is running for Salt Lake County mayor this year, said the whole purpose of the CRC is to take some time – “give pause” – to have “experts and academics” take time to study “unintended consequences” of amendments which may have passed in the later half of a Legislature.
“History shows that the CRC has saved us from needless headaches. It is justifiably hard to change the Constitution. Only the Legislature can do it with the vote of the people. We make mistakes (in legislation) all the time, have to come back in a special session to fix it. We can’t fix the Constitution in a special session. We have to wait for the next general election.”
Gov. Gary Herbert could not be contacted Monday for comment.
Senate Majority Whip Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, told UtahPolicy that the two amendments on this upcoming ballot didn’t rise in concern for the CRC to meet and give advice.
Dayton’s bill “raised the issue of what threshold do we need either the TRC or the CRC to answer questions of policy. In this case (of the two amendments) we believe it doesn’t rise to” that threshold, he said.
In the future, said Niederhauser, he can see a case where a major change to tax policy would require the TRC to meet, and likewise a major constitutional amendment would require the CRC’s attention.
Niederhauser said GOP leaders have not discussed the CRC’s involvement in these two amendments and to his knowledge the group won’t be asked to meet to review them.
Said Memmott: “My hope is to get this election (year) over with. When we have new leadership” in the House and Senate, both parties, “sit down with them and ask if they’d like to use us in the kind of things we can do well. If they want us, we’re more than happy to do that,” Memmott said.
If not, well, the CRC, which used to be a force in the state Constitution amendment process, will stay on the books, but not meet unless called to do so by the state’s top Republican political leaders.