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Keeping House by Rep. Kraig Powell

Keeping House by Rep. Kraig Powell

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Published by Geoff Liesik
Powell explains the pressure he says he felt from Republican leadership in the Utah House of Representatives to vote for House Bill 477.
Powell explains the pressure he says he felt from Republican leadership in the Utah House of Representatives to vote for House Bill 477.

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Published by: Geoff Liesik on Mar 14, 2011
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03/15/11Keeping HouseBy Rep. Kraig PowellThe Utah legislative session ended at midnight on Thursday. I am proud of most of our accomplishments.Without raising taxes, we provided a 2 percent increase, or more than $40 million, in new funds to public education to cover the expected increase of 15,000 students in next yearâ
s school-age population.We passed a set of bills dealing with illegal immigration that I believewill 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 â
enterprise zone amendments â
achieved final passage. This bill will correct an injustice andput millions of dollars back in the pockets of business owners all across ruralUtah. 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. Nowthat the session is concluded, I would like to explain this issue to you in evengreater 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 myactions. Here is what happened from my point of view.Introduction of HB477I had absolutely no knowledge of HB477, or anything like it, until March1. I first learned of the proposed bill in a closed House Republican caucus onthe 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 yetbeen made available to us or to the public.Passing HB477Typically, it takes a minimum of three to four weeks for a bill to makeits 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 learnand provide feedback to their legislators through letters, phone calls and e-mails.That usual pattern was not followed in this case.The text of HB477 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 2011legislative session, with dozens of items on committee agendas and committee meetings going late into each night.On Wednesday, March 2, at various times during the day, I read and triedto review the 59-page bill known as HB477 (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, March 3, HB477 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 afterI had been told about the bill and less than 48 hours after the text of the billhad 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 me
dia reporting and public feedback on the bill prior to my vote.With no intervening weekend to study the bill or reflect before castingmy 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-expeditedprocess to avoid media attention and public scrutiny.What I Felt Was at StakeMany of my constituents have asked why I voted for HB477 if I could tellthat 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 significantthe 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 madeby 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 Senateagenda simply at the pleasure of leadership. Legislators are completely at themercy of leadership during this time and must do everything they can to stay inleadersâ
good graces.During the past year I met with Wasatch County officials for several months to draft a bill guaranteeing workerâ
s compensation coverage to search and rescuevolunteers. Another bill I have been working on for more than 10 months with business and government leaders from Duchesne and Uintah counties concerned enterprise zone tax credits.This bill took months and months of meetings with the Utah State Tax Commission, the Governorâ
s Office of Economic Development, and scores of constituents from the Uintah Basin. The bill will restore millions of dollars in tax relief tosmall 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 billscould easily be held and killed by leadership. When HB477 came up for a vote onThursday, 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 HB477, 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, â
Where have all the statesmen gone?â
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 â
vote would have had absolutely no effect otr 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.RedistrictingAs if all of the above were not enough, there was an additional, possibl

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