Democrats Fail to Block Republican Bill to End Equal Partisan Representation on Some State Commissions

Utah State CapitolIt wasn’t the slap in the minority Democrats’ face as last year’s partisan action, but on the first day of the 2017 Legislature House Democrats lost a minor battle over their influence in state government.

The two Democrats on the House Rules Committee were voted down by the GOP majority when they tried to hold HB11, a bill that removes the partisan designations (and thus Democratic influence) from more than two dozen state commissions or boards.

Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, tells UtahPolicy he is not trying to punish the minority party in any way – it just makes little sense to have partisan appointees on the Livestock Market Committee, for example.

Heck, you may not be able even to find a Democrat who wants to sit on some of the commissions that Thurston wants to “depoliticize.”

But for the House minority, HB11 smells like another attempt by the majority to whittle down the already meager power of Democrats in the Utah Legislature.

And the open wound of the 2016 Legislature remains.

You may recall that after House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake, publicly lambasted House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and House Republicans over Medicaid expansion and other issues a year ago, the majority party decided to take away the equal membership by Democrats on the Legislative Management Committee and the Audit Subcommittee.

Now whoever is in the majority in the House and Senate gets extra votes/membership on those two critical committees.

And no longer can Democrats – on rare occasions, admittedly – stop the majority Republicans from making decisions on those two committees.

Thurston points out that there are 414 state boards and committees in state government, all looking for good citizens to sit on them for little or no money and make all kinds of decisions or recommendations to the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

Of the 414, 74 have partisan appointees. That is, by law, a certain number of Republican, Democrat or politically independent appointments must be made.

It makes some sense to have a few of these boards and commissions have partisan, or bipartisan, make-up, says Thurston.

But many of these partisan requirements are just plain out of date or even silly.

But, Democrats point out, there may indeed be some politics involved in decisions by, for example, the Waste Management and Radiation Control Board – one of the “depoliticized” boards under HB11.

HB11 would take the partisanship out of 29 of the 74 committees, leaving 45 still with requirements that a certain number of members be Republicans or Democrats or independents.

Rules Committee member Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake, said on the first day of the session when there is usually good feelings between representatives starting out the work of the general session, it looks bad to send out a bill for a hearing that is so partisan in nature.

But only fellow Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, voted with her to hold HB11 in Rules. All the Republicans on Rules voted to send the bill out for committee hearings, anyway.

Thurston said not only is HB11 not an attempt to punish Democrats, but as the law now stands on partisan-appointed commissions where specific entities – like, say, the merchants’ association – get an appointment, when a name is picked by that association and goes to the governor, sometimes the governor has to say that group can’t pick that person because the open slot must be filled by a Democrat or a Republican – and the association doesn’t get the person they want on the commission when politics plays no real part in the matter.