Better UTAH Beat Episode 43 – April 9, 2013

The following is the transcript from this week’s Better UTAH Beat. It aired on April 9, 2013.
This is Maryann Martindale of the Alliance for a Better UTAH and welcome to this week’s edition of the Better UTAH Beat.

It was Socrates who famously said over 2500 years ago, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” You’d be hard pressed to find someone today who wouldn’t at least agree in part with Socrates’s assertion. The process of careful, self-examination can be painful, but most of us are anxiously engaged in making our lives more livable. Had Socrates been more politically inclined, he might also have agreed that the unexamined legislative process is not worth supporting.

The way our legislators govern has a tangible and real effect on the lives of millions of Utahns. So, we breathed a sigh of relief late last week when Senate President Wayne Niederhauser announced that the state legislature was re-instituting the Legislative Process Committee.

The committee will meet throughout the legislative interim session to consider more fully the question of how our legislature governs. From how bills are written, to how bills are voted on, there are substantial areas of the legislative process that deserve more examination.

For example, the concept of conflict of interest needs to be further clarified and addressed. Currently, there is no universal acknowledgment of when a conflict of interest exists. Left to their own discretion, legislators are not always forthcoming about their own conflicts of interests. Legislators may not even understand that they have conflicts of interest.

Legislators have different views of what constitutes a conflict of interest—some view their professional experiences as areas of expertise that allow them to craft better laws, while others view those same experiences as a conflict of interest. During this session I personally heard two acknowledgements of potential conflicts of interest. Both Senate President Niederhauser and Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck in separate committee hearings, acknowledged potential conflicts based on other business or organizational affiliations. It’s something you rarely hear, but it is important for the public to know so that they can make informed decisions. And if there is a conflict of interest, legislators should be allowed to abstain from voting.

In addition to acknowledging conflicts of interest, the committee should also work to eliminate what are known as boxcar bills. Boxcar bills are essentially empty bill files, often with innocuous titles such as “government amendments” that wait patiently as the clock ticks away during our short 45-day session. At the last minute, the legislator can quickly fill in the bill language and have it placed amongst the final flurry of bills, often preventing citizens from having enough time to research the bill and fully understand its implications. One of the most infamous boxcar bills was in the 2011 Session–HB477, or GRAMA.  There was an attempt this last session to eliminate boxcar bills but it was amended down significantly and ended up being a fairly ineffective piece of legislation. The Legislative Process Committee needs to revive this discussion and give serious thought to eliminating the practice of boxcar bills.

We’ll be the first to admit that addressing legislative ethics is complicated. Governance is rarely a black and white issue. Most political decisions are made in areas that are gray with a lot of negotiation. Of course, if all issues were already black and white, we wouldn’t need legislators in the first place.

But operating in the gray can make what the legislature seem very complicated which in turn makes participation by ordinary citizens even more difficult. We believe that people don’t disengage because they aren’t interested, but rather because they don’t understand how to participate. We need an easier-to-follow system so that people can understand not only what their legislators are doing, but also why they are doing it. In the meantime, the burden of creating an engaged populace falls not only to voters, but to our legislative leaders as well.

Throwing our hands in the air and attributing low voter turnout and lack of interest to a lazy citizenry is itself a lazy response. Rather, legislators can take active roles as educators, helping citizens to understand better the governing process.

Context matters for most of these issues. That means our legislators can do a much better job in their role as educators and advocates for good government. A misunderstood legislative process, just like an unexamined one, is likely to gain little support from ordinary Utahns.

The newly formed Legislative Process Committee is an important step in that direction.

This is Maryann Martindale with this week’s edition of the Better UTAH Beat.

Have a great week, and remember, together, we can make a better Utah.

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