Legislative Republicans Looking to Disadvantage Democrats on Two Key Committees

Utah State Capitol 14In the heavily-Republican Utah House and Senate, the question will again be debated on whether minority Democrats’ equal footing on two committees should be removed.

Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, wants to add majority Republicans to two committees now with equal membership, while House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake, says that is unneeded and unnecessary.

Under current House and Senate rules, minority Democrats have the same number of seats as majority Republicans on the Legislative Management Committee and that committee’s Audit Subcommittee.

Christensen, R-Draper, has introduced HB220, which says that those two entities’ membership would be increased in two ways:

— First, the LMC would get the Rules Committee chairmen of both the House and Senate.

Since the GOP majorities pick the Rules chairs, that would add two more Republican lawmakers to the current LMC split of 8-8.

— Second, the Audit Subcommittee is now made up of the House Speaker and Minority Leader, and the Senate President and Minority Leader, a 2-2 split.

HB220 would add two Republicans to the Audit Subcommittee, making it a 4-2 split for the majority.

On both committees, by rule the majority Republicans hold the chairmanship and vice-chairmanships, so conduct meetings and decide agendas.

But the equal split is made because, in the actual running of the Legislature itself, there shouldn’t be partisan majorities, the philosophy goes.

But that is a bad operation, says Christensen, a lawyer who is one of the recognized constitutional/government operations experts in the body.

“Proportionality (in committee assignments based on the make-up of the House and Senate bodies as a whole) avoids unjust and undesired” outcomes, says Christensen.

Those government principles used in generally running a legislative body should be maintained, he added.

And on all other Utah legislative committees, rules place the number of minority members on a committee being about the same percentage as they hold in the main body numbers.

The Supreme Court, even local city councils, have odd numbers, said Christensen. And that is on purpose, so you don’t have tie votes, and the will of the majority overall is not thwarted.

“We don’t want a stalemate” on LMC and the Audit Subcommittee, he added.

This is not the first time such proposals have been made by a majority member in the House or Senate.

Usually, the bill calls for the same percent of minority and majority members on LMC as there is in the House or Senate.

In the 2015 Legislature, such a bill failed.

Those proposals would drastically increase Republicans on those committees or drastically reduce Democrats.

The 12 Democrats in the House are only 16 percent of the total while Democrats in the Senate make up only 17.2 percent of that body.

And they now have 50 percent of the LMC membership and 50 percent of the Audit Subcommittee’s membership.

For the most part, the operations of the LMC and Audit Subcommittee are not harmed or even impacted, by their memberships.

But there are exceptions.

In the summer of 2014, in an LMC meeting, many of the Republicans didn’t show up.

The late-Speaker Becky Lockhart was chairing the meeting. At one point the Republicans wanted to act on an agenda item, but the Democrats all voted no.

Lockhart smiled and said something like: “OK, how long are we going to sit here” until more Republicans could be rounded up.

Finally, the Democrats gave in, and the item passed.

Some years ago Senate Democrats wanted a legislative audit that had political implications. Republicans didn’t.

But one of the GOP leaders failed to show up at an Audit Subcommittee, and so the Democrats got their way – to the displeasure of the GOP legislative majority.

However, the new attempt – while Christensen cites sound democratic principles – may have more to do with personalities than specific issues.

King has been an aggressive and outspoken minority leader in the House – which some Republicans are becoming tired of his comments and pestering.

“We should minimize partisanship up here, not advance it,” King told UtahPolicy Wednesday.

“How we run the Legislature and decide on audits should be above partisanship,” he added.

“Let the facts justify” those decisions, King said.

Christensen said his proposal would take personalities out of the equation because there would be odd-number memberships “and the normal processes” that govern the current Legislature overall would prevail.