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For too long Utah and other states have not exercised their sovereign powers in the face of the federal government's growing reach into new arenas, according to leading members of a new state commission assembled to study and push back against federal authority.
"History has shown that if you concentrate power it was a fundamental threat to the rights of people and it was corrupting," Senate Majority Leader Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, told the inaugural meeting of the Commission on Federalism. "We have watched that happen for the last 50 years as the federal government has broadened its jurisdiction in a number of issues."
He said the beauty of the nation's constitutional system is how it splits sovereignty between the states and a central government. Republican lawmakers contend the system has fallen out of balance and passed HB131 last session to create the seven-legislator commission to help set things right.
The group was spun from the governor-appointed Constitutional Defense Council's federalism committee. Its charge is to investigate examples of federal overreach and report back to the Legislature, according to the bill's sponsor, Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan.
"The federal government has metastasized so much into what has traditionally been the exclusive jurisdiction of the states," Ivory said when he pitched the bill before a legislative committee last session. A leading champion of greater state control over public lands, Ivory wants to identify the line federal reach must not cross.
"That's a great question," said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City. "We're not always going to agree on where the line is and that's OK. The discussion is worth having."
King reminded his colleagues of the historical context that gave rise to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 when the states held all the cards.
"The Articles of Confederation laid out a system that was largely dysfunctional" because the nation was little more than a loose collection of political units, he said. A central government plays an important role in regulating interstate commerce, managing a common currency and negotiating treaties.
Among the commission's first witnesses was Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who described the 10th Amendment's crucial role. This final provision of the Constitution's Bill of Right says any power not explicitly accorded to the federal government is reserved for the states or the people.
"All states need to be able make choices and live with those choices even if they are incredibly stupid," Bishop said. The government that emerged during the New Deal was one that frowns on states making its own decisions. This was a radical change from what preceded Franklin Roosevelt's programs of federal intervention, he said.
"One take away from today is if we want to be a sovereign we have to act like one," Niederhauser said.
Niederhauser and House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, chair the new commission, which meets six times a year. House members include Ivory, King, and Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden. Senate members are Mark Madsen, R-Eagle Mountain, and Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City.