Tribune Editorial: Utah Legislature lives in its own black hole

Reason, truth and democracy are in short supply as lawmakers work in speed and stealth.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lawmakers in the House Chamber the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

For 45 days every year, members of the Utah Legislature surround themselves with a kind of black hole.

It is not the kind that is so dense that not even light can escape. Legislative actions and debates illuminate the news before, during and after the session. It is more the sort that light cannot enter. Nor can reason, truth or, most important of all, democracy.

The urge of lawmakers to so envelop themselves is understandable. They have a great deal to do in a very short time. Stopping to fully consider the full ramifications of any action they might take, or to wonder what their constituents might think about it, could lead to a kind of paralysis where nothing at all happens.

Even though, in the case of many bills, nothing happening would be the best outcome.

The perceived need for speed among many lawmakers resulted Wednesday in a spirited debate over a set of reforms to the state’s bail system, reforms passed last year and only in force since October, and the passage of a new bill that nobody really seemed to like to set aside reforms that no one thinks had yet had a chance to work.

Observers and activists complain annually, with cause, that bills are sprung upon us late in the session, apparently greased to fly though the process with little time for either the public or other lawmakers to weigh in with questions, improvements of objections.

The issues are important, but rarely are proposals so urgent that they couldn’t have been studied and considered in the months between legislative sessions in such a way as to reach consensus and wisdom rather than speed and conquest.

Legislative belief in the Dark Arts had no greater example this year than House Bill 297. That’s the measure that would create and fund, to the tune of $9 million, an entity called the Colorado River Authority, tasked with carrying Utah’s token into battle with six other states, two countries, numerous Native American tribes and Nature itself over water that is unlikely to exist.

Sponsors of the bill — personages no less than House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President Stuart Adams — gave the authority the power to draw a cloak of secrecy over the process, giving the authority exemptions from the state’s open meetings and open records laws.

But even the most secret of covens is unlikely to have the power to reverse climate change or fill either the Colorado River or Lake Powell with enough water to be worth fighting over. Much less to justify the planned multi-billion dollar Lake Powell pipeline. Though secrecy might allow pipeline advocates to continue to pretend that Utah is not a state of water hogs that ignores the infinitely cheaper, and more effective, method of water conservation over water exploitation.

The bills passed both the House and the Senate before the session ended Friday, and is likely to be signed by Gov. Spencer Cox. Even though he shouldn’t.

Another measure, House Bill 294, also seemed based on the idea that the Legislature has mystic powers to, in this case, end the COVID-19 pandemic in Utah. Not through masks, distancing or vaccinations so much as by legislative fiat, a declaration that the public emergency was over — even if the pandemic wasn’t.

Or, in the words of sponsor Rep. Paul Ray, the bill would be “a way to say we’re done.”

Well, if lawmakers had the power to do that, why didn’t they do it a year ago, and banish that pesky virus before it did so much damage? Maybe because that’s not the way viruses work.

As this is written, hours before the gavel fell on the 2021 session, HB294 had passed the House but was unlikely to even get a hearing in the Senate, so late was the hour.

Another bill that won’t survive the final bell — if we are lucky — is Sen. Dan McCay’s Senate Bill 205. That’s the repeal of the requirement that political parties in Utah allow candidates to seek nomination for public office by filing petitions instead of, or in addition to, going through the highly unrepresentative caucus/convention system.

Keeping the petition route to the ballot would be a small victory for democracy. And will hopefully bring us lawmakers who will oppose legislative traditions of speed and stealth and let the people in.

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