Sparks Fly in House Rules Committee Meeting

Ahh, the Utah Legislature — where an arcane rule can be used to stop a vote on another rule that you may not like.


Such was the case Monday afternoon, when House Rules Vice-Chair Ronda Menlove, R-Garland, moved to adjourn the House Rules Committee before a vote could be taken on Rep. Jim Nielson’s HR2 – a proposed rule that would allow House members to abstain from votes that they have a conflict of interest on.

The adjournment left Nielson, who is retiring this year and won’t be around next year to pursue such abstentions, frustrated.

He pointed his finger at House Rules Chair Dean Sanpei, saying, “This deserves to be heard.”

Sanpei, R-Provo, told UtahPolicy that Monday’s meeting may be the one and only standing hearing for House Rules this session – so any rule not passed Monday is out of luck – most likely dead.

Early Monday, in the House Rules Committee, meeting as a sifting committee (it’s normal job), the committee sent SJR11 directly to the House floor voting calendar. Such an action bypasses a House hearing on the bill – even though this past summer the Legislative Process Committee heard any number of complaints that too many Senate bills were allowed to bypass House standing committee hearings, and were passing without a House public hearing – which (oh, you got to love this) is against House rules.

(All those Senate bills – up to a third of all bills adopted by the House — bypassing House standing committee hearings are voted on under “suspension of the rules,” another wonderful route lawmakers love to take toward the end of each 45-day general session.)

If this confuses you, don’t worry.

Just think of it like this: The Utah House and Senate have all kinds of rules aimed at keeping members on the straight and narrow, which they “suspend” so bosses can do what they really wanted to do in the first place.

It has become typical in recent years that the House Rules Committees – sitting as a standing committee and hearing proposed rule changes – doesn’t get all of its work done in the one meeting they set for hearing rule change proposals in the session.

And so proposed rules that GOP bosses don’t like are never voted on in the Rules Committee, and so are stuck and dead.

Nielson, R-Bountiful, said he may try to lift, from the floor, his HR2 and put it before all 75 House members for debate and a vote.

But, he said ironically, that would probably take the support of Sanpei and Menlove – what are the chances of that?

In her adjournment motion, Menlove noted that a House rule says no standing committee can take action on a bill when the House is scheduled to be on the floor.

And the House was supposed to be back on the floor at 2 p.m.

However, it is typical that the speaker doesn’t begin a floor session unless there are a majority (38) of House members on the floor.

And Monday afternoon, at 2 p.m., there were not 38 members on the floor; in fact the high-pitched electronic bell calling House members to the floor had not even been turned on.

Doesn’t matter – the rule says you can’t vote on a bill in committee when reconvene time has passed, said the Rules Committee staff researcher, whose job it is to know all the rules.

Also not heard Monday in the half-hour Rules Committee hearing was Rep. Kraig Powell’s HR1, which (you gotta love this) would, if passed by the House, stop the suspension of the rule that says a bill must get a House hearing before it can become law.

So, the House Rules Committee didn’t get to a bill that would stop what the Legislative Process Committee said last summer was a possible abuse of a legislative rule.

Wheels within wheels, conflicts within conflicts.

Nielson said in his testimony (before the House Rules Committee adjourned) that Utah is one of only two states where legislators are not allowed to abstain from voting. Oregon is the other state.

More and more, said Nielson, the public demands to know how and why lawmakers are voting this way and that.

Currently, if a one of Utah’s 104 part-time legislators doesn’t want to vote on a bill, he or she just walks off the floor – thus missing the vote.

Not wanting any political adversary to criticize them for missing votes, more often than not members vote on bills that they have a direct conflict of interest on.

For example, a car dealer may vote on a bill that would require periodic safety and emission inspections, thus forcing business into their shops.

If there is a “call of the house,” however, demanded by lawmakers, then the sergeants of arms run through hallways trying to round up lawmakers to vote.

By rule – wouldn’t you know it – if a legislator is present in the Capitol building, he or she has to vote if there is a “call of the house.”

This has led, in years past, to some really silly actions by lawmakers who don’t want to vote on a tough issue.

— Back when the House ladies room was small, the door could be locked from the inside. One female House member used to lock herself into the bathroom, refusing to come out for a vote. Once the House clerk had to fumble through dozens of keys in order to unlock the door and force her to come and vote.

— Another time a House member was found by a journalist hiding behind the House kitchen door, trying to keep from taking a tough vote.

— Another House member used to walk down to the Lieutenant Governor’s Office and wait in a break room until after a tough vote was taken.

All this is irresponsible and non-transparent, said Nielson.

“We live in a different ethical world today” than when Nielson’s father, former legislator and U.S. congressman Howard Nielson, was in office, said Nielson.

Then, lawmakers used to take frequent trips paid for by private enterprises and brag that it wasn’t costing taxpayer money. Now that isn’t allowed.

Utah lawmakers not being able to abstain from voting on personal conflicts of interest “is far more important than we are willing to admit,” said Nielson.

“I don’t think our current system” – where legislators must vote on conflicts of interest or “take a walk” – “is what our voters ask for,” Nielson added.

“This is an ethics bill, important, and deserves to be heard on the floor, it is a transparency issue to our voters,” he added before the committee adjourned without taking a vote on HR2.

Sanpei said the House Rules Committee may or may not meet again as a standing committee, where Nielson’s and Powell’s bills could be heard.

Finally, one interesting note: It was important that a proposed rule change was passed by the House Rules Committee on Monday – a rule that takes conflicting language out of existing rules to allow lawmakers to earn part of their pay.

The sponsor of that bill couldn’t be found. So Sanpei himself took over that bill’s presentation. It passed unanimously: Would not want to impede the legislators’ pay.