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The Utah Tax Commission has a new member the first since voters last year rejected a proposed constitutional amendment to remove a requirement for partisan diversity.
Rebecca Rockwell, a tax attorney and 22-year staff member of the Utah Legislature, is unaffiliated with any political party, according to voting records. She was appointed by Gov. Gary Herbert and confirmed by the state Senate to replace former Commissioner D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, a Democrat.
The new member joins two Republicans and one Democrat on the four-person panel that oversees and supervises tax laws in the state.
Rockwell was administered the oath of office Wednesday by one of her 104 former bosses, former Sen. John Valentine, who last year gave up his seat to take the appointed post of Tax Commission chairman.
Valentine and Michael Cragun, a former Davis County commissioner, are the two Republicans on the panel and Robert Pero, former clerk/auditor in Carbon County, is a Democrat.
Rockwell, who is from Tooele and serves on that city's arts council, has worked as associate general counsel for the Legislature since 1994, where she has earned a reputation for expertise in tax law.
Staff attorneys who do research and draft legislation for lawmakers are not prohibited from registering as a member of a political party.
"But we do discourage them from being active in [party politics], from going to caucuses, voting in primary elections, things like that," said Michael Christensen, director of the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel. "We talk to them right up front and say 'this is a nonpartisan office, our whole credibility is based on the fact that legislators believe we will provide them unbiased information free of personal agendas and so on.' "
The Utah Constitution for decades has required partisan diversity on the tax commission and voters rejected an attempt to remove that mandate by a convincing 60 percent to 40 percent majority in last November's election.
The Utah Constitution prohibits a governor from appointing more than two members of the same party to the panel, but it does not require an even split.
Still, the two-two mix has, until recently, been the practice for most of the last 84 years.
Rockwell is only the second unaffiliated member appointed going back to 1931, according to tax commission records. The first was Marc Johnson, who served from 2000 to 2012.
Valentine was the sponsor of the proposed constitutional amendment in his final session in the Legislature, arguing that in his many years as a tax attorney representing clients before the commission, "I never felt the partisan nature [had] any importance at all."
He said the change, in conjunction with other statutory changes, would put more focus on qualifications and experience and remove the narrow considerations of partisanship. And he compared commissioners to judges, who shouldn't have a party label or devotion to a party ideology.
Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon disagrees, and believes voters showed wisdom in rejecting the change.
"When you have one party making all the decisions, neither the good ideas nor the bad ideas get challenged," said Corroon, a former Salt Lake County mayor who believes the tax commission has too often sided with large corporations against small business and individual taxpayers.
"I think the voters like to see some diversity in opinions," Corroon said, "especially when it comes to their pocketbooks."