by Howard Stephenson
What would you do if you worked hard to elect members of your political party to the legislature – willingly giving your time and money to advance the ideas you hold dear – and you actually won over the years a nearly 75% majority of each house, but then the legislators of your party – whom you had worked so hard to elect – decided to give the opposing party equal representation on the most important and most powerful committees of the legislature?
Would you wonder why you worked so hard in the battlefield of ideas, only to find your soldiers giving up their places to the opposition? Would you feel betrayed? Would you still feel like working hard for the party?
This scenario is not a situation of “what if” in the Utah legislature. It’s a case of what is.
Having served as a Republican state senator for the past fourteen years in the Utah legislature I have wondered why the Republican majority gives equal or nearly equal representation to the Democrats. The voters of the state – in spite of years of negative press toward Republicans – have elected an overwhelming Republican majority in both the House of Representatives.
The Utah Senate has 21, Republican senators out of a total of 29, or a whopping 72% majority. The House has 56 of 75, or 75% of representatives who are Republican. In spite of these supermajorities, the Republicans in both houses have given equal or nearly equal representation on the most important committees to the Democrats.
Legislative Management Committee
The Legislative Management Committee (LMC) is considered by many to be the most powerful committee of the legislature because it controls the core functions of the legislature and its staff. The LMC directs the interim committees in what they are to study and is the body which approves all travel, meetings, and study items of the various committees of the legislature.
This committee is so important and so powerful that it is not established by the rules of the House and Senate as are all other committees of the legislature, but by state statute. Utah Code 36-12-8 establishes the Legislative Management Committee and, unfortunately, gives equal representation to Democrats and Republicans. The LMC is made up of four Republicans from each house and four Democrats from each house. The LMC has three sub-committees which govern the three staff offices of the legislature: Research and General Counsel Subcommittee (3 Republicans and 3 Democrats), Budget Subcommittee (3 Republicans and 3 Democrats), and Audit Subcommittee. (2 Republicans and 2 Democrats)
The current political makeup of the LMC ensures that each of the 8 Senate Democrats has a 50% chance of serving on the powerful Legislative Management Committee while each of the 21 Senate Republican has a 19% chance of serving on the committee. In the House the likelihood of a Republican serving is even smaller than the Senate.
A Perfect Example
A recent vote in the July meeting of the LMC illustrates the danger of giving the minority party disproportionate representation. Most of the issues which come before the committee for approval are considered perfunctory. One of those should have been a request by two interim committees to form a joint subcommittee to study an issue of interest to both committees. Without warning, all four Democrat house members voted as a block to defeat the motion to allow the formation of the subcommittee. The request to form the subcommittee resulted from unanimous votes from the Business, Labor & Economic Development Interim Committee and the Revenue & Taxation Interim Committee. The purpose of the subcommittee was to study government competition with the private sector and examine areas where government services could be privatized. The Democrat house members supported the union’s opposition to privatization and support of government competing with the private sector more than they supported two legislative committees’ unanimous vote to study the issues.
Executive Appropriations Committee
The most powerful committee in the legislature regarding the budget is the Executive Appropriations Committee (EAC). This committee approves or denies budget requests and finalizes all budget proposals coming from the various appropriations subcommittees before the spending bills are sent to the floor of each house for a final vote. Although the disparity is not as great as the LMC, here again the Democrats have a disproportionate degree of representation in relation to their numbers in the House and Senate. The committee has 12 Republican members and 8 House members or 60% to 40% but the legislative makeup is approximately 75% to 24%. On matters of budgets, the Democrats potentially wield more power than the electorate gave them.
Commissions and Boards
Fifty-fifty political representation is also very common in legislative representation on commissions and boards. In other words, despite the fact that voters have spoken overwhelmingly in support of Republicans, the legislature has exercised its prerogative in giving significantly greater proportionate representation to Democrats.
Disproportionate representation on committees in the legislature is not fair to the electorate or to the members of the under-represented majority party. I believe the Legislature should honor the wishes of the electorate and ensure that all committees provide for proportional representation based on the political makeup of each body.