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Editorial: House panel should not duck vote on bill to allow abstentions

Vote on rule to allow abstaining

First Published Feb 24 2014 05:18 pm • Last Updated Feb 24 2014 05:18 pm

First the sponsor of a bill that would allow members of the Utah House to abstain from voting was told that his idea might encourage lawmakers to duck their duty to make tough decisions.

Then the whole House Rules Committee ducked its duty by hiding behind a technicality and adjourning before they could vote House Resolution 2 up or down. Thus the lie was given to the argument that our political leaders can’t already find a way out of the kitchen when they can’t stand the heat.

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Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, was in his second year of trying to get the Utah Legislature to join with 48 other states in allowing members to formally abstain from a vote. He is rightly concerned about the current rule requiring all members present during floor debate or in a committee meeting to cast a vote. That rule not only allows, but forces, members to vote up or down on measures that could cause them personal, professional or financial benefit, or harm.

As Nielson explained to the committee Monday, lawmakers could avoid violating either the rule or basic ethics by simply wandering off the floor, or out of the committee room, right before a vote was to be taken.

But, he correctly said, the legislator would be recorded as absent, not as having deliberately abstained. And that would deny the voters the chance to look at the record and decide whether a member’s decision to abstain was a proper step taken to avoid a conflict or an act of political cowardice.

It is indeed possible that, in order to avoid angering either, say, gun rights advocates and gun control supporters, or polluting industries or public health advocates, some of the less qualified members of the Legislature might abstain — vote "present," as they say in Congress — in hopes of making fewer enemies along the way. Such a vote would be a recorded vote nonetheless, for which a lawmaker seeking re-election would have to account.

Just as Nielson finished explaining that to the committee, its members voted to adjourn without further discussion. Hiding behind a rule that says committees are not supposed to take action when the full House is scheduled to be in session, which it had been for less than 10 minutes, and actually convened some 20 minutes late, allowed the committee to duck the issue of ducking issues.

The committee’s action was gutless.

It should, at the very least, bring the bill back before a later hearing, as difficult as that can be in the rushed atmosphere of a legislative session ticking toward its end, and obey the very rule that committee members seem devoted to protect.

Take a vote.

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