“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
— Edmund Burke, member of the British Parliament, speech to the electors of Bristol, Nov. 3, 1774
This epigram is gospel to a great many elected officials around the world. It sums up the theory of representative democracy, the idea that those chosen by their constituencies to represent them in national, state and local assemblies are not there just to fulfill orders like so many pizza delivery drivers.
No, our representatives are supposed to do the work, study the issues, hear the testimony, read the reports, balance the interests and all the other things that the folks back home could do for themselves if they weren’t so busy living their own lives, raising their own families, running their own businesses.
But that doesn’t mean that whatever decisions those representatives make are the correct ones. That’s why we have elections, freedom of speech and of the press and, in Utah, a relatively robust process for the voters to pass their own laws or countermand decisions of the Legislature.
There was an echo of Burke — a political thinker claimed as a ancestor of modern conservatives and liberals alike — in the somewhat catty remarks made last week by House Speaker Brad Wilson at the opening of the 2020 session of the Utah Legislature.
Wilson was apparently still smarting from the popular revolt against the Legislature’s tax reform package, a complex and unpopular bill that was repealed as one of the first orders of business after a petition drive that would have forced a popular vote on the matter if it were allowed to stand.
He referred to the petition drive as “divisive” and often “short of facts.” He predicted big trouble ahead for a state that turns its back on the established idea of representative, rather than direct, democracy.
Nobody likes to be told that he isn’t doing his job properly. Nobody feels good when someone else barges in and says, “Here, you’re doing it all wrong. Let me.”
But what if they are doing it all wrong?
Wilson may have been correct in saying that the voters did not fully understand all the ramifications of the now-withdrawn tax bill.
But they understood all too well that the primary goal of this “reform” seemed to be to make the state’s revenue base more regressive, cutting the already low and flat income tax rate — robbing funds from the already underfunded public education system — and boosting the sales tax levy on basic necessities of life such as groceries and gasoline.
These are the same voters who in 2018 approved two propositions — one to set up a system allowing the use of cannabis for medical purposes and the other implementing the full expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act — which lawmakers wasted no time in undoing. To their own futile embarrassment.
The Legislature’s redo of medical marijuana had to be redone. And its plan to substitute its own cruel and fiscally absurd Medicaid plan for the one that the voters liked — and agreed to pay for through a tiny hike in sales tax — was so poorly drawn that the federal government wouldn’t allow it.
In both cases, the people of Utah are getting what they voted for. Just a year or two late.
Burke would say — did say — that while elected representatives are not supposed to make their decisions based upon the whim of the electorate, they are supposed to set policy that furthers the interests and meets the needs of the people.
In several important matters, the Utah Legislature has not proven that it is up to that task.
This year gives them the chance to do better.