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A bill that would make it easier to fire state attorneys was stalled in a committee Thursday.
The House Business and Labor Committee voted 9-5 to hold HB268 for further discussion.
Sponsored by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, the legislation would bar any attorney hired by the Utah attorney general after May 10, 2016, from having career service status, meaning they would serve at the pleasure of the attorney general and could be fired without cause. Attorneys already in the office or hired before May 10 could retain civil-service protections but could not receive promotions or pay increases unless they forfeited the protections.
Rep. Curt Webb, R-Logan, said he didn't know if there was a problem.
"Are there a bunch of underperforming attorneys, or is this just a philosophical change?" he asked.
Noel said he was sponsoring the bill in reaction to a legislative audit report in 2015 that suggested the AG's office could improve it its performance measurements and accountability.
Attorney General Sean Reyes spoke against the bill, saying it would hurt his office's ability to recruit and retain employees. Most of the 250 lawyers in the office take a pay cut when they come to work for the state and giving them the benefit of job security helps offset the lower pay, he said.
The notion that he is unable to terminate an underperforming employee is a myth, Reyes said. There was a problem in the past with a lack of documented evaluations, but that has since been remedied, he assured lawmakers.
The bill could also hamper his attorneys from providing accurate legal advice, Reyes said. Their mandate is to defend state law and sometimes that makes them unpopular with either state agencies or the public.
"I don't want my lawyers' jobs being threatened because they gave someone an answer they didn't like," he said.