There are gatekeepers at work in Utah’s government, working behind the scenes to make or break legislation. Some of the bills being held back by these gatekeepers are broadly supported by Utahns, but the guardians of conservative ideology on the Hill are keeping these bills from seeing the light of day and receiving a fair hearing in the public square.
These gatekeepers — the House and Senate Rules Committees — are the funnel through which all bills must pass. And if they or majority leadership don’t want bills to be debated, they will give the Gandalf treatment — ”You shall not pass!” — and nobody in the public will ever know about it. That’s right, a few political power players are actually keeping Utahns from being able to even discuss legislative solutions that a majority of us agree on.
Imagine if all 104 legislators were sitting at a restaurant, looking over a menu of bills they could address, trying to decide what they do and don’t want. They discuss the menu with their companions and make their decisions after some conversation. They’re only able to discuss and pick from the items on the menu that has been put in front of them, and those options on the menu were compiled by the cooks in the back of the kitchen.
Up on the Hill, the backroom cooks who are compiling the menu of bills for legislators to consider are the members of the Rules Committees, the committee chairs and the majority leadership.
Legislators can only consider and publicly debate bills that are assigned to a standing committee, such as Health and Human Services, Government Operations, Revenue and Taxation, etc. For any bill to get to a standing committee, it must first be assigned there by the Rules Committee. And for the Rules Committee to consider assigning a bill to a standing committee, that bill must first make it onto a list which is overseen by some mysterious backroom entity, and approved by Republican leadership and the committee chair.
At this very moment, these gatekeepers are holding back a good bill and keeping it from seeing the light of day. The ERPO bill, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Handy, has died a quiet death behind those ironclad gates. This bill would allow courts to issue Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPO) — which would require an individual to temporarily surrender their firearms — if they find sufficient evidence that a person is a danger to themselves or others. Family members, roommates and police officers would be able to petition the courts to issue an ERPO, and the individual in question would have the opportunity to have the order vacated.
A law like this could save lives in instances of suicidal ideation or domestic violence, and more than two-thirds of Utahns support this bill. But a handful of Utah power players are holding it hostage.
While ERPO, which Utahns support, collects dust in a dark corner of the Capitol, a conservative, do-nothing bill has found its way out of Rules. This bill would allow Utahns to voluntarily put themselves on a “no-buy” list, which would prohibit them from purchasing firearms for at least 30 days. But the sponsor of this bill, Rep. Cory Maloy, recently admitted in an early-morning committee hearing that “[he doesn’t think] people will flock to do this on their own.”
Republican leadership and the Rules Committee are keeping the ERPO bill from seeing the light of day up on the Hill while prioritizing bills from guns-rights activists. They don’t even want to chance that this bill — which the vast majority of Utahns support — might pass, because certain special interest groups like the NRA oppose them. It is unfortunate for the state of our republic that some politicians are more interested in keeping these special interest groups happy than they are in addressing issues that Utahns support.
The power of the gatekeepers in the Rules Committee and in majority leadership to decide public policy in private is the embodiment of politics run amok. These backroom conversations that determine which bills do and do not even get to be considered by the legislature keep the public in the dark, and keep good laws with broad consensus out of reach.
Katie Matheson is communications director for the Alliance for a Better Utah.