|The Utah legislative session ended at midnight on Thursday. I am proud of most of our accomplishments.
Without raising taxes, we provided a two percent increase, or over $40 million, in new funds to public education to cover the expected increase of 15,000 students in next year’s school-age population.
We passed a set of bills dealing with illegal immigration that I believe will reduce public assistance benefits to undocumented residents, improve safety and security in society, and ensure that only legal and verifiable employees are hired by Utah businesses.
On the next-to-last day of the session, my highest priority bill, enterprise zone amendments, achieved final passage. This bill will correct an injustice and put millions of dollars back in the pockets of business owners all across rural Utah. I thank all my constituents who worked so hard with me in passing this bill.
There is one huge blight, however, on the 2011 legislative session. Now that the session is concluded, I would like to explain this issue to you in even greater detail.
As a member of the Utah House of Representatives, I am ashamed of my vote in favor of House Bill 477 amending Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA).
Many of my constituents, after reading the scathing accounts of this bill in this newspaper and other media sources, have communicated to me their disgust and outrage at my vote.
I offer my deepest apology to my constituents for my actions. Here is what happened from my point of view.
1. Introduction of HB 477. The legislative session began on Monday, January 24. I had absolutely no knowledge of House Bill 477, or anything like it, until March 1.
I first learned of the proposed bill in a closed House Republican caucus on the afternoon of March 1. During that caucus, among other topics discussed, House Republican leaders explained to us that they would be introducing a bill to make a few needed changes to GRAMA.
At that time, the text of the bill had not yet been made available to us or to the public.
2. The Process of Passing HB 477. Typically, it takes a minimum of three to four weeks for a bill to make its way through the Legislature.
The traditional pattern of several committee hearings and floor debates in each chamber allows ample time in the media cycle for the press to analyze and publicize important bills and for the public to learn and provide feedback to their legislators through letters, phone calls and e-mails. That usual pattern was not followed in this case.
The text of HB 477 was released in the late afternoon of March 1, after the closed caucus meeting. March 1 and March 2 were the busiest days of the 2011 legislative session, with dozens of items on committee agendas and committee meetings going late into the night each night.
On Wednesday, March 2, at various times during the day, I read and tried to review the 59-page bill known as HB 477 (along with many other bills), but time was very limited and I had no idea of the true significance of the bill. I worked through the overnight hours on both Tuesday and Wednesday nights researching the bills to be heard in my own committees, which did not include HB 477.
On Thursday afternoon, HB 477 was brought up for a vote in the full House. All 57 Republican representatives voted for the bill, including me. Four Democrats voted yes and 12 Democrats voted no.
The vote was taken just two days after I had been told about the bill and less than 48 hours after the text of the bill had been made public. The bill passed the Senate the very next day and immediately went to the Governor. The use of this expedited process did not allow for media reporting and public feedback on the bill prior to my vote.
With no intervening weekend to study the bill or reflect before casting my vote, I was unaware of the full significance of the bill or the feelings of the public on the issue.
I know that if the normal legislative process had been followed, I and many other legislators would have easily been able to gain the information about the bill that we needed, and I, along with many others, definitely would have voted against it. I imagine that at least some members of House leadership knew this fact, and so they chose to instead follow a highly-expedited process to avoid media attention and public scrutiny.
3. What I Felt Was at Stake. Many of my constituents have asked why I voted for HB 477 if I could tell that the process was rushed and was apparently designed to hide something. My first answer, as stated above, is that I was not really aware of how significant the bill was or how flawed its process was until well after I had voted.
My main answer to this question, however, has to do with the way the legislature is governed. Nearly every important decision in the legislature is made by the legislative leaders.
House leaders decide committee assignments, committee chairmanships, and seating arrangements.
Once the annual legislative session begins, the power of House leadership increases even further. Leadership has complete power to decide which bills move forward in the legislative process. Leadership can stall bills in the Rules Committee or send bills to unfavorable committees.
Then, in the last week of the session, leadership's power becomes supreme. This is because all bills still pending with one week remaining in the session are removed from consideration and selectively replaced on the House or Senate agenda simply at the pleasure of leadership.
Legislators are completely at the mercy of leadership during this time period and must do everything they can to stay in leaders’ good graces.
During the past year, I met with Wasatch County officials for several months to draft a bill guaranteeing worker’s compensation coverage to search and rescue volunteers.
Another bill I have been working on for over ten months with business and government leaders from Duchesne and Uintah counties concerns enterprise zone tax credits.
This bill took months and months of meetings with the State Tax Commission, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, and scores of constituents from the Uintah Basin. The bill will restore millions of dollars in tax relief to small businesses in rural counties all across Utah.
The enterprise zone bill and several other bills I had worked on were still pending in the last week of the legislative session. I knew that these bills could easily be held and killed by leadership.
When HB 477 came up for a vote on Thursday, March 3, every single Republican in the House had already signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill, so I knew that all of them would be voting yes in just a few minutes. My decision would make the vote either 57 to 0 or 56 to 1.
I knew that my no vote would not change anything about the passage of HB 477, but it could very well have doomed all chances of passing the legislation that my constituents had worked on with me for nearly a year.
Many angry e-mails to me in the past week have asked, “Where have all the statesmen gone?” My answer, unfortunately, is that the legislative process, like our lives, is often very messy and there are few black-and-white, easy decisions.
I decided that there was no reason to make all of my hard-working constituents suffer by losing their legislation when a “no” vote would have had absolutely no effect other than to ostracize me among my colleagues and greatly impair my chances of having influence on other issues.
I imagine that even with this explanation, there will still be some citizens who view this GRAMA issue as so important that it would be worth sacrificing any other objective just to make a point by voting in opposition. I respect this principled, idealistic view, but I believe that such behavior under our current rules would soon render a legislator impotent.
4. Redistricting. As if all of the above were not enough, there was an additional, possibly even more important reason to toe the line of legislative leadership this year. Beginning this month, all legislative districts in the state will be redrawn by legislative leaders. Either Duchesne County or Wasatch County, or both, could be carved up in many pieces in this process.
I am already a legislator who is known to have an independent record with regard to many Republican party positions in the House. It is especially important for Duchesne and Wasatch counties that I not give leadership any reasons to punish these areas in the redistricting process by trying to create new districts that would weaken our influence.
Even writing what I have written here may come back to haunt our district, but I figure the feral cat is now out of the bag and this story is now bigger than any of us, so leadership will have to deal with it as well.
5. Reform. This episode has taught me that my highest priority now must be to work for reform of legislative rules and processes.
I believe there should be strict rules that will prevent bills from being rushed through in a few short hours at the end of a legislative session. I also believe that a main source of the HB 477 travesty was the use of the closed caucus, which I will do everything in my power to eliminate.
6. Ethics. What is most disheartening about the comments I am receiving is that many people look to me to set an example of ethics in the legislature. I hope that my constituents will still be able to see me as an example of ethics.
To my knowledge, I am the only legislator in the state of Utah who has adopted a position of not taking any donations from lobbyists or special interest groups. I do not have any special relationships with any lobbyists. I work only for the people.
I have nothing to hide in my legislative activities, and will gladly make all of my e-mails, text messages, and documents available under any transparency law at any time. I had no reason or desire to vote for this bill, other than what I have explained above.
I hope my constituents can understand my dilemma even a little bit, and someday forgive me for the abomination that is HB 477.
Thank you for allowing me the privilege of serving you.
As always, you may contact me by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 435-657-0185.
BY REPRESENTATIVE KRAIG POWELL