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Two Senate Democrats booted from committee assignments

Sens. Derek Kitchen and Kathleen Riebe suggested the change was retribution for their criticism of Republicans

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, chats with Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City,, in the Senate, on Thursday, Feb.18, 2021.

Two Senate Democrats were dumped from committee assignments with no notice on Thursday morning. Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, was booted from his seat on the Senate Education Committee, and Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, was kicked off the Senate Government Operations Committee.

Riebe and Kitchen said they found out about the change shortly before the Senate convened on the floor Thursday morning and informed it was effective immediately.

“I was supposed to be in the Education Committee this afternoon, but now I’ve got a free afternoon,” Kitchen said. “I’m just going to be twiddling my thumbs and keeping the seat warm because they don’t want oversight.”

Was the highly unusual move to promote equity among committee assignments, or was it political payback? It depends on who you ask.

A statement released Thursday morning said the move was made because Republican Senators each have two committee assignments, while the Democrats all have three. The statement said the change came at the behest of Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, who has been away from her legislative duties since she was diagnosed with cancer last week.

“We took a careful and deliberate action to correct inequitable committee assignments,” said Mayne. “I appreciate President Adams’ support to make certain our caucus is fairly represented.”

Both Kitchen and Riebe didn’t buy that explanation.

“This hasn’t been a problem the last three years I’ve been here,” Riebe said.

Kitchen was also skeptical of the explanation for the move, especially in light of Mayne’s absence.

“I don’t know how Sen. Mayne having a medical issue would mean that Senator Kitchen and Senator Riebe need to be removed from a committee. That doesn’t make any sense. If anything, her being sick would require additional assignments, not less,” Kitchen said.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, washed his hands of any responsibility for the change.

“I will just say I support this decision,” Adams said.

The shuffle means two crucial committees, Education and Government Operations, will only have one Democrat instead of two. In exchange, Democrats pick up a second seat on the Senate Rules Committee, where they are now outnumbered by Republicans 7-2.

The move comes one day after Adams refused to answer questions about COVID-19 precautions at the state Capitol. A week earlier, Kitchen accused his Republican colleagues of ignoring COVID guidelines. On the first day of the 2022 session, Adams tested positive for COVID-19 twice but publicly said he had tested negative. Senate staffers acknowledged Adams’ positive tests after questions from The Tribune.

Both Kitchen and Riebe have been vocal in their criticism of moves made by the Republican majority this year, most notably HB183, which prevents schools from going to remote learning from a COVID outbreak, and the decision to override a temporary mask mandate in Salt Lake County.

“They have a two-thirds supermajority, so the governor cannot stop them. We are a super minority, so we have no ability to stop stuff. They get to do whatever they want. It’s the freight train of the Republican Party moving down the tracks,” Riebe said.

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