After Democratic complaints, Republicans acknowledged Thursday that they violated the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act when a committee decided to debate though not vote on a bill by its GOP chairman without first listing that bill on its public agenda.
"So the public had no way of knowing it would be discussed, and there is a lot of interest in it," said Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City.
The House Revenue and Taxation Committee discussed HB41 by Chairman Patrick Painter, R-Nephi, even though it appeared nowhere on the agenda. The bill would exempt the first $25,000 of personal property of a business from tax, instead of just the current $3,500.
Legislative fiscal analysts say the bill could result in a shift of $12 million in property tax among taxpayers. Those with business personal property would see a decrease in taxes paid, while others would see an increase. Painter, the bill's sponsor and committee chairman, owns a car dealership.
"We had discussed HB41 in a previous meeting, but it was held because there were a lot of questions," Briscoe said.
Painter said in an email to The Tribune Thursday that at the end of the regular agenda, he wanted to tell members about discussions with some county assessors regarding the bill.
A tape of the meeting shows that after several minutes of discussing points of the bill, Briscoe called a point of order.
"We are having a debate about a bill that was not on the agenda, so the public didn't know we were going to have a debate," Briscoe said on the tape.
Painter replied, "There will be no action on this." Echoing that was Rep. David Butterfield, R-Logan, vice chairman of the committee, who was conducting the meeting.
But Briscoe then said, "My understanding of why we have agendas is so people will know what is going to be discussed."
Butterfield replied, "The chair just requested to have a discussion among committee members."
Briscoe said he became angry and walked out at that point, though the committee discussion continued for several minutes.
Someone in the audience tried to raise a question. But Butterfield said, "We're not taking public comment today, so I will ask you to maybe ask questions or whatever offline." The meeting adjourned without any vote on the bill.
Butterfield said that because of Briscoe's complaint, he called legal counsel and found "we shouldn't have done that." He said he apologized to Briscoe.
Butterfield, a freshman lawmaker, said it was only his second time conducting a meeting. "While it shouldn't have been done, it did no egregious harm. We didn't take any action. ... It is a lesson learned," he said, adding it was an unwitting mistake and not an intentional violation.
Painter, a four-term legislator, said in an email, "No comment from the public was taken nor was any action. We will continue to discuss the bill further as the session goes forward."
What the law says
Utah Code 52-4-202 • "A public body shall give not less than 24 hours or public notice of each meeting including the meeting: agenda; date; time; and place."
It also says that agendas "shall provide reasonable specificity to notify the public as to the topics to be considered at the meeting. Each topic shall be listed under an agenda item on the meeting agenda."
It says a chairman may allow other topics to be brought up by the public. But it also says a "public body may not take final action on a topic in an open meeting unless the topic is: listed under an agenda item â¦ [and is] included with the advance public notice required by this section."