We oppose Senate Bill 44, sponsored by Sen. Margaret Dayton, because it would unwisely prevent the Utah Constitutional Revision Commission from doing what it does best, which is to provide thoughtful and politically neutral advice to the Legislature and the people of Utah about the strengths and weaknesses of proposed changes to the Utah Constitution.
The commission is the volunteer body that has, for more than 40 years, done the state's homework on constitutional change. SB44 would strip the commission of its staff and eliminate its authority to conduct periodic comprehensive examinations of the constitution. The bill would narrowly limit the commission's work to specific projects assigned to it by joint resolution of both houses of the Legislature.
In other words, both houses of the Legislature would have to vote to send a measure to the commission before it could act. At present, by contrast, the commission reviews proposals for revision of the constitution whenever asked to do so by the governor, the leaders of the Legislature or the sponsor of a resolution to amend the constitution.
SB44's requirement of a majority vote of both houses to trigger commission action would certainly mean that its services would be seldom used, and that it would have little to do. This dramatic reduction in the role of the commission would be a huge loss for the State of Utah and a step backward for good government.
The commission is, by design, made up of a politically diverse group of appointed lawyers, judges, legislators and other citizens with a background in state constitutional law and policy. Whenever a serious proposal is made to change the state's constitution, the commission holds public hearings, takes evidence and where necessary seeks advice from outside experts.
It invites comment from parties who might legitimately oppose the change, as well as from those who support it, and then it listens and debates alternatives. After conducting its hearings, it gives detailed suggestions to the Legislature on each proposal.
The commission sometimes points outs that a change in one part of the constitution (for example, in provisions regarding state taxation of property or division of power between branches of government) will have consequences in other areas that the sponsor of the change may not have foreseen or intended.
Or the commission may point out that the same problem has been solved in other states by means that are more efficient and less risky. Or the commission may suggest language changes that will avoid confusion or costly litigation down the road.
Sometimes the Legislature takes the commission's advice, and sometimes it doesn't. But the Legislature has the benefit of thoughtful advice from a body with the time, expertise and resources to look deeply into the consequences of every proposed change.
The commission was created decades ago based on the belief that the Utah Constitution is too important for the Legislature to change without first doing its homework.
Our constitution reflects the accumulated wisdom of the founders of the state who wrote it, generations of lawmakers who amended it, and all of the citizens who have voted on proposed changes. It is therefore part of our heritage, and we should be proud of it on that score. But it is more than a feature of our historical heritage. It is the fundamental law of our state.
It expresses Utah's values on basic issues of individual liberty, ownership of property, the limits of taxation and the duties of government. All of the Legislature's enactments derive their authority from it and must conform to it.
It is therefore vital for the Legislature to understand fully the consequences of constitutional changes that, in one way or another, will affect everyone's life.
If the commission is prevented from doing the work as it has in the past, we fear that the work will not be done. The commission was established because the Legislature does not have the time or inclination on its own to lay the necessary groundwork for wise constitutional change.
Today, the Legislature is much busier that it was 40 years ago, and it has even less time to give deliberate thought to constitutional changes that will impact Utahns for generations.
Although SB44's sponsor claims that it will save money, there is no financial justification for paring back the commission's authority.
Because most of its work is done by people who volunteer their time as a labor of love, the commission costs the taxpayers very little in relation to the benefit our state receives from its work.
We believe that Utah's Constitutional Revision Commission is a model for other states. SB44 would be a backward step and would deprive the state of expertise and thoughtful consideration in the constitutional revision process. SB44 should be rejected.
Alan L. Sullivan and Michael D. Zimmerman are Salt Lake City lawyers. Sullivan served on the Constitutional Revision Commission from 1991 through 2003 and was its chair for four years. Zimmerman is former justice and chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court, where he served from 1984 through 2000. He served on the Constitutional Revision Commission from 1987 through 1994.