Utah House Advances Measures on Legislative Management, Redistricting

Utah State CapitolTwo big votes Tuesday in the Utah House that could have long-term effects on how the state Legislature makes critical decisions in the future.

One was expected.

The other a surprise, at least to a long-time political observer like me.

As expected, HB220 passed the House. The final vote was 41-33, closer than may have been thought, considering that as reported previously in UtahPolicy Speaker Greg Hughes had endorsed it.

The bill would remove the 50-50 partisan split on the Legislative Management Committee, and its Audit Subcommittee, by putting two more members of the majority party on each.

The surprise vote comes on HJR5, 41-33 in favor, which would set up an advisory commission to recommend to legislators how the Legislature every ten years redraws their own state House and Senate districts.

The Legislature would still adopt the final redistricting maps for the 29 Senate and 75 House districts; just have several options given to them by the new independent group.

The future of both bills is uncertain, as the Utah Senate would have to adopt each, and votes there are unclear.

The House vote on HB220 is here.

The House vote on HJR5 is here.

As you can see, 21 House Republicans voted against changing the make-up on LMC and the Audit Subcommittee.

And a similar number of Republicans voted to “weaken” – if that is the right word – the majority Republicans’ power to chose their own voters, and the voters for minority Democrats, too – in redrawing their districts after the 10-year U.S. Census.

Oddly enough, there was no debate on HJR5.

Sponsor Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, said citizens are naturally cynical about legislators voting to redraw their own legislative districts – a process that has been criticized time and again when lawmakers undertake redistricting every ten years.

Various polls over the years show Utahns don’t like that process.

His bill does not set up an independent entity to recommend on Utah’s four U.S. House districts, nor the non-partisan State School Board, but only legislative seats.

A Democratic-sponsored Senate bill that would have set up an independent commission on all redistricting was killed and sent to interim study.

Lawmakers redrawing their own districts “is the ultimate conflict of interest,” said Nelson, whose own Tooele County has been split oddly the last three redistricting – with some arguing that Tooele County has been split into Senate districts to keep one or two non-county incumbents stay in office.

Only one Republican spoke on HB220, Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield. He warned that Republicans need to be careful in unbalancing the LMC and Audit Subcommittee.

Several House Democrats asked their majority colleagues not to make the change – stressing that the LMC hires the top legislative staff directors, who in turn hire the regular staff, and that having a majority Republicans on the committee will naturally lead to partisanship among its personnel.

“We will lose some of our best staff members,” said Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, adding they will not want to work under a partisan system.

In fact, UtahPolicy over the last several weeks has spoken to legislative staffers, several of whom did say it is a concern to them in changing the LMC membership.

But HB220 sponsor Rep LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, said it ignores Utah voters – who have picked Republicans to be the majority party in the Legislature – to have any committees that don’t recognize “the principled voice of the people.”

UtahPolicy has reported before the concerns of Hughes, R-Draper, and his beliefs – denied by House Democrats – that the “tone” and “nature” of the minority leadership has changed over the last year.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake, wrote a Salt Lake Tribune op-ed sharply criticizing House Republicans for refusing to adopt GOP Gov. Gary Herbert’s Healthy Utah Medicaid expansion last session.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said his GOP caucus would not take up the LMC membership issue until, and unless, the House passed it.