Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Ten Mostly Good Ideas to Make the Utah Legislature Better

When the 2015 Utah Legislature ended at midnight March 12, it concluded my 35th year of covering the body for either the Deseret News or UtahPolicy.

Yes, I started covering the Legislature as a 10-year-old cub reporter.

OK, I was in my 20s when I first covered some committee hearings in the 1980 general session – going to full-time reporting on the 104-member, part-time body in 1982.

So, as I tell my beautiful, bright daughters, you may be smarter than I am (they know they are), but I have some wisdom in some areas.

They don’t listen to me, anyway, so you, dear readers, don’t have to either.

Still, after all these years walking the hard, marble floors of our lively Capitol, I give you now Bob Bernick’s 10 Mostly Good Ideas to Make the Utah Legislature Better.

Follow these, and we will end up with a better-functioning, more-responsive, more-professional legislative branch of state government.

And who wouldn’t want that?

Here we go (with the following not in any order of importance, except for No. 10, which is really the most important. Now, doesn’t that make you want to read to the end of this column?):

1) The Utah Legislature must become an equal branch of government; meaning legislative leaders must have a way to call members into a special session without any action by the governor.

As the Utah Constitution now stands, once out of the annual general session (which runs 45 consecutive days from the fourth Monday in January), only the governor can call a special session (except in some cases of emergency) and he or she sets the agenda.

This is archaic and stupid.

The governor doesn’t need to get approval of the judicial branch of government to do his job, and the courts don’t need the approval of the legislative branch to do their job.

Legislators should be able to call themselves into a special session any time they want, for as long as they want, for any reason they want.

If voters don’t like what lawmakers are doing – don’t make it harder to do, just hold them accountable. (A theme you will see running through all of my reform suggestions.)

2) The Utah Legislature should remain a part-time operation. Having teachers, insurance agents, small businessmen and accountants in the body gives it a very valuable real-world experience.

But it’s hard – if not impossible – for many Utahns to serve. They can’t take 45 days off in a row, nor get time in the interim for meetings two or three days a month.

Since the average family income in Utah runs $45,000 to $50,000 a year, lawmakers’ legislative pay needs to go up – to at least $25,000 a year.

One way to help more be able to serve.

Now, depending on how many days a year a legislator attends a paid-for meeting, the average pay is around $16,000 to $18,000 a year.

Another reform is to pay lawmakers, not by the day – with interim day pay/meeting assignments decided by leaders – but in an annual salary.

As part of the salary reform, legislators should, on the Legislature’s already-fine website, make public their interim official business schedules. If a lawmaker meets with his local city and county officials, make public that meeting – even if the meeting itself is not open to the public.

The voters elect legislators. And the voters should know what they are up to – how they are earning their taxpayer salaries and representing us.

Disclosure, disclosure, disclosure.

3) The 75 House members are elected every two years, in even-numbered years. Senators serve four-year terms, half the 29-member Senate elected every two years.

While this is not known, each Legislature lasts two years, starting in an odd-numbered year after an even-numbered year election.

But each general session starts anew. Bills that aren’t passed by both the House and Senate introduced in one year, can’t move over to the next general session

This is time wasting.

For the same two-year Legislature, bills that fail to pass in the first session (in the odd-numbered year) should remain in the committee/floor calendar for the following even-numbered year’s annual session.

All the work of getting one’s bill through your body, and to see it die at midnight because the other body had it on its floor calendar but ran out of time is dumb.

The bill should start when it ended and move forward, to passage or defeat in the even-numbered annual session.

In addition, in an odd-numbered year interim, if a bill had a hearing in the house of origin and passed to the other house, but didn’t have a committee hearing there, the bill should be heard in the interim – and voted on only by the member’s of the opposing body (since interim committees are joint committees.)

More interim work in odd-numbered years, yes. But overall better legislation and better public input. And who doesn’t want that?

4) Allow lawmakers to abstain from voting for any reason, both in a committee and on the floor. Now, if present, a legislator must vote, even if he has a major conflict of interest.

Stupid. Why are we forcing such conflicts?

If a legislator keeps ducking tough votes, let his re-election opponents and voters take him to task.

5) No secret bill files. Now a legislator can start the drafting process with no one but a staff attorney knowing it. A lot of work can be done, but no bill ever introduced.

We pay these legislators. We should know what they are doing. No secret bills.

6) Reasonable campaign donation limits. Utah is one of only a handful of states that has no campaign donation limits for state officers.

Other states have done this, we can, too. It’s OK by me if the limits are set high and tagged to inflation. Disclosure is great, but we don’t want a candidate getting $100,000 the last week of the campaign and the legislator winning and beholden to someone for two or four years.

7) Allow anyone to file an ethics investigation on any legislator. Now a complaint can only be filed if there is first-hand knowledge of an alleged misdeed. You have actually to see a legislator take a bribe for your complaint to be filed.

Yes, there could be complaints filed for bogus or clearly political reasons. But keep all complaints private (as they are now) until the independent ethics commission has decided there is cause to go into formal hearings.

False charges are often brought against someone in court, and that process – while painful – is accepted and justice finally done.

8) Reinstitute regular hearings and studies done by the Constitutional Revision Commission and the Tax Review Commission.

Both these commissions did fine work during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, before being shunted aside by legislators who didn’t like their findings.

Too bad.

Keeping our Constitution updated and fair is important, as is constant reviews of our tax system. Don’t fear knowledge and information, legislators. These groups served the public well.

9) I understand that only the Legislature can put a constitutional amendment before the voters.

And I fully understand it’s unlikely that any Legislature, any time soon, will pass a constitutional amendment putting the 10-year legislative, U.S. House and State School Board redistricting into an independent redistricting commission.

But legislators or a citizen petition could adopt a law that sets up such a commission to make RECOMMENDATIONS to the Legislature on redistricting.

It is just wrong to have lawmakers picking their voters, as opposed to having voters picking their lawmakers.

And this is what the current redistricting by the Legislature is doing.

Salt Lake City, the state’s largest and most important city, has not had a U.S. House member representing all, or even most of, the city in decades.

This is because the GOP Legislature knows city residents, being more liberal than the rest of the state (and that’s not saying much) would vote in a Democrat.

But this is an anti-democratic (small D) action, and reflects poorly on the Legislature and state as a whole.

Let everyone’s vote count equally. And stacking legislative and congressional districts IS NOT giving equal weight to each vote. Period.

And independent commission could make reasonable and justifiable redistricting suggestions. And then let the Legislature explain why these changes aren’t supportable. At least some of the gerrymandering could be stopped.

10) Here’s the last suggestion – and the most important.

And isn’t it great that it’s already happened. Legislators just have to have the guts to side with voters instead of political party insiders.

Keep SB54 unchanged for several election cycles. Let’s see the impacts of allowing some candidates – by their own choices – get on their party’s primary ballot via a voter petition signature gathering process.

In time, and it may take several elections, I think we will see a more moderate Legislature; a more moderate U.S. House and Senate delegation from Utah.

That’s not to say that the current members will be voted out. No. I don’t predict that.

But the current incumbents – both Republicans and Democrats – will feel more free to vote for reasonable, mainstream ideas and solutions.

Republicans will still control the Legislature, the governorship and the federal delegation. Why?

Because by far most Utahns are Republicans; and vote that way.

But released from the fear of several dozen (in a Utah House seat) right-wing delegates taking you out in your party’s state (for multi-county districts) or county conventions will free up good, reasonable GOP lawmakers from the grip of their party’s arch-conservatives (who I believe stack the caucus/delegate process).

Finally, it would be nice if the 2016 Legislature does all 10 of the suggestions above.

I remain, respectfully,

Bob Bernick, who has watched you for 35 years and can still walk upright.