Amid Democratic complaints that big-majority Republicans too often debate and work out legislation behind closed doors, House GOP leaders asked their members Tuesday to stop asking to discuss their bills at party caucus meetings.
House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said that "it is not a good idea" for his party to have bills presented in caucus while it has "a supermajority situation." He told members "it is better to have a decision made on the floor" of the House with Democrats and the public present.
Dee asked members to explain their bills to others individually, and present bills in committee and on the floor. He said on some broad issues, the caucus will still receive briefings.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said that is not really a change in policy. "It’s been years that we have tried to say to legislators, ‘Don’t use the caucus to sell your bill.’ If there’s an overriding issue like health insurance, or Medicaid, or public education policy … we’ll do that." She said exceptions have been rare.
House GOP caucus meetings usually are open, but sometimes close. Democrats complain that controversial new congressional districts were worked out almost entirely there behind closed doors, and that the GOP also greased the skids behind closed doors last year for HB477 to gut much of Utah’s open-records law — only to be forced by public backlash to rescind it.
Senate GOP caucus meetings are always closed. Democratic caucuses are open.
Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, is pushing SB45 to force party caucuses to be open in most situations. Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, is also pushing HB89 to force open caucuses any time they discuss legislation while enough members are present to form a majority of either the House or Senate — which currently would apply only to Republicans.
Republicans hold a 58-17 majority in the House, and a 22-7 majority in the Senate.
Powell said about Dee’s instructions, "I can’t speculate where it came from or what it’s in reaction to, but I’m very encouraged by it."
Powell also is using an unorthodox strategy to gain attention for his open-caucus bill: He introduced companion legislation, HB226, as a joke. It would allow local governments to close their meetings anytime they feel that "conducting the discussion in a closed meeting is preferable." He contends that is what the Legislature can do with closed caucuses.
Powell said he doesn’t take lightly writing a bill that he has no intention of passing, but did it to make a point. He said he wrote the bill himself, and figures it took staff "less than 10 minutes" to put it in final form for introduction.
Many people did not initially get his joke, and social networks on Tuesday were initially blasting the bill, figuring it was a serious proposal.
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