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HB477: Voters fooled again

Published March 12, 2011 1:01 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The ghost of P.T. Barnum must have been hanging over the heads of the Utah Legislature last week when lawmakers voted to make state government much more secretive and got Gov. Gary Herbert to sign it on the promise that they will fix any problems with it later.

You know the famous Barnum quote: "There's a sucker born every minute."

That would be us.

The "compromise" was made by legislators after a huge public outcry against HB477, which had been passed overwhelmingly by the Senate and the House.

Once widespread opposition arose against the bill that would severely limit access to government records and legislators' communications, Herbert was ambivalent about signing the bill, which upset legislators who told me they had a deal with the governor before they exposed themselves to public scorn by introducing the bill and passing it in warp-speed fashion.

Herbert signed the bill after lawmakers pulled it back and changed the effective date from immediately to July, saying it now gives everybody a chance to study the bill and change it in a special session before the effective date.

Herbert says he signed it because a supermajority in the Legislature would have been able to override his veto with a two-thirds vote, even though the final version passed in the House with far fewer votes than needed for an override.

Some lawmakers are telling me the veto override threat is a straw man since Herbert reportedly told legislative leaders in the initial meeting that if they got two-thirds of the Senate and the House to vote for the bill, he would sign it. That two-thirds would give him cover.

But the question still remains: Why pass a bill, sign it into law and then say you'll fix it before it goes into effect?

Normally, if a bill has problems, it is assigned to an interim study committee that holds hearings on the bill all year and refines it into a suitable form for the next legislative session.

But, just like the sly circus magnate knew, we're suckers.

The Legislature has a history of lulling us into a comfort zone and then zapping us before we know what happened.

Lawmakers saw a serious threat to their power base in the early 1990s when populist political activist Merrill Cook began a petition drive to put an initiative on the ballot that would limit most elected office-holders to 12 years in office.

As the momentum for Cook's term-limits petition grew, lawmakers stopped it in its tracks by passing their own term-limits bill — limiting elected officials, just like Cook's initiative, to 12 years.

The bill passed overwhelmingly, with legislators showing their constituents just how sensitive legislators were to the public's concerns.

The clock started ticking on term limits in 1994. But just before 2006, when the 12 years would have been up, the Legislature repealed the term-limits law. Just like that.

You can do that when your state is dominated by one political party.

Another time, in the 1980s, Republican legislative leaders needed the era's tiny band of Democrats to help them pass Gov. Norm Bangerter's record tax-increase proposal to fund education.

A significant number in the Republican House caucus refused to vote for any tax increase.

So the Democrats agreed to give the Republican governor and legislative leaders their votes — on a condition.

They asked in return that the family income level be raised by several thousand dollars before state income taxes kicked in.

That would have relieved thousands of low-income families from having to pay state income tax.

The lost revenue was to be made up by removing the federal tax deduction on state returns, which affected wealthy families the most, since they saved the most by deducting their federal tax.

It was sort of a Robin Hood, take-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor approach that Democrats love and Republicans hate.

But the Republicans agreed, so they could get the badly needed tax increase for education.

Then, in increments over the next few years, the Republican-dominated Legislature put the federal tax deduction back in to make their wealthy constituents happy and let the Democrats know they had been had.


Contact Paul Rolly at prolly@sltrib.com —




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