Utah House kills redistricting, petition gathering proposals without a public hearing

Utah State CapitolSo much for Democratic-sponsored major election law reform this general session.

Monday, The GOP-controlled House Rules Committee effectively killed two bills by Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake – and they won’t even get a hearing this year.

HB403 would have allowed electronic signatures for citizen initiative petitions.

And HB411 would have set up a bipartisan redistricting advisory commission to recommend boundary lines changes for the Legislature, U.S. House and State School Board every 10 years after the Census.

Chavez-Houck, who sits on the Rules Committee, asked its GOP majority to at least allow her to have public hearings on the bills.

“I know they won’t pass, but the issues are important and should be heard,” she said.

But there is no way GOP legislative bosses even want to discuss allowing electronic signatures on citizen initiative petitions.

For such electronic signings would make it much easier for advocates to gather the approximate 120,000 voter signatures needed to get an issue on the ballot.

It is no secret that political bosses DON’T want the Our Schools Now citizen initiative movement to get their 7/8th of 1 percent personal income tax hike for public schools on the 2018 ballot.

GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and House and Senate GOP legislative leaders have already come out against OSN.

And any kind of compromise with OSN leaders seems dead this session.

True, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and House Speaker Greg Hughes are pushing sales and income tax reforms this session.

But while the OSN initiative would raise an extra $750 million annually for public schools, the leaders’ changes would be revenue neutral – no new money for schools, at least not in the near future.

UtahPolicy first reported that OSN leaders don’t see any “meaningful” tax hikes for schools, and vow if they fail in 2018 they will try again to raise significant revenues for schools in a 2020 petition drive.

Chavez-Houck said a study by the state Elections Office (run by Republicans) showed that it is technically possible to allow for electronic signatures on petitions and that it can be done in a secure manner.

For four years, she told GOP Rules members, she has been trying to get her signature bill heard – but Republicans aren’t interested.

Well, they aren’t interested this year, either.

Also, there is also no way that the majority Republicans have any interest in having a nonpartisan or bipartisan commission looking over their shoulders when they redraw their own House and Senate districts in 2021.

The Utah Constitution says the Legislature will redraw the boundaries. And only through legislative action can a constitutional amendment be put before voters for a change.

Accordingly, it is clear the GOP majority will never adopt such an amendment – giving away their power to redraw their own district boundaries – in effect pick their voters.

But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled – as Chavez-Houck noted – that it is legal to set up commission’s the only recommend boundary changes after a Census.

No go.

For with such a commission’s recommendations, it would be harder for the GOP majority to ignore nonpartisan-drawn boundary lines – and legislators would look bad to their constituents in redistricting years.

The GOP Utah Legislature tried to redraw former Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson’s 2ndDistrict lines in 2001 to get him defeated.

But by winning a significant number of independent, even Republican, votes, Matheson held on during the 2000s, winning re-election.

In 2011 the GOP Legislature, again, redrew the 2nd District to hamper Matheson. He then jumped to the new 4th District and won re-election in a close race.

But Matheson gave up the ghost after that expensive and harsh re-election.

And in the last two 4th District elections Republican Mia Love has won – giving Republicans all four U.S. House seats in Utah.