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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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03/15/11 Keeping House By Rep. Kraig Powell The Utah legislative session ended at midnight on Thursday.

I am proud o f most of our accomplishments. Without raising taxes, we provided a 2 percent increase, or more than $4 0 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 believe will reduce public assistance benefits to undocumented residents, improve safet y and security in society, and ensure that only legal and verifiable employees a re hired by Utah businesses. On the next-to-last day of the session, my highest priority bill â enterpris e zone amendments â 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 bil l. 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 vot e in favor of House Bill 477 amending Utah's Government Records Access and Manag ement Act (GRAMA). Many of my constituents, after reading the scathing accounts of this bil l in this newspaper and other media sources, have communicated to me their disgu st 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. Introduction of HB477 I had absolutely no knowledge of HB477, 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, Hous e Republican leaders explained to us that they would be introducing a bill to ma ke 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. Passing HB477 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 he arings and floor debates in each chamber allows ample time in the media cycle fo r 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-ma ils. That usual pattern was not followed in this case. The text of HB477 was released in the late afternoon of March 1, after t he 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 mee tings going late into each night. On Wednesday, March 2, at various times during the day, I read and tried to review the 59-page bill known as HB477 (along with many other bills), but ti me was very limited and I had no idea of the true significance of the bill. I wo rked through the overnight hours on both Tuesday and Wednesday nights researchin g 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 Democr ats 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 immediat ely 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 casting my vote, I was unaware of the full significance of the bill or the feelings of t he public on the issue. I know that if the normal legislative process had been f ollowed, I and many other legislators would have easily been able to gain the in formation about the bill that we needed, and I, along with many others, definite ly would have voted against it. I imagine that at least some members of House le adership knew this fact, and so they chose to instead follow a highly-expedited process to avoid media attention and public scrutiny. What I Felt Was at Stake Many of my constituents have asked why I voted for HB477 if I could tell that the process was rushed and was apparently designed to hide something. My f irst 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 Leg islature is governed. Nearly every important decision in the Legislature is made by the legislative leaders. House leaders decide committee assignments, committ ee chairmanships, and seating arrangements. Once the annual legislative session begins, the power of House leadershi p increases even further. Leadership has complete power to decide which bills mo ve forward in the legislative process. Leadership can stall bills in the Rules C ommittee or send bills to unfavorable committees. Then, in the last week of the session, leadership's power becomes suprem e. This is because all bills still pending with one week remaining in the sessio n 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 and must do everything they can to stay in good graces. leadersâ During the past year I met with Wasatch County officials for several mon ths to draft a bill guaranteeing workerâ s compensation coverage to search and rescue volunteers. Another bill I have been working on for more than 10 months with bu siness and government leaders from Duchesne and Uintah counties concerned enterp rise zone tax credits. This bill took months and months of meetings with the Utah State Tax Com mission, the Governorâ s Office of Economic Development, and scores of constituents f rom 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 st ill pending in the last week of the legislative session. I knew that these bills could easily be held and killed by leadership. When HB477 came up for a vote on Thursday, March 3, every single Republican in the House had already signed on a s a co-sponsor of the bill, so I knew that all of them would be voting yes in ju st 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 t hat 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 st atesmen gone?â My answer, unfortunately, is that the legislative process, like our l ives, is often very messy and there are few black-and-white, easy decisions. I d ecided that there was no reason to make all of my hard-working constituents suff er by losing their legislation when a â noâ vote would have had absolutely no effect oth r than to ostracize me among my colleagues and greatly impair my chances of havi ng influence on other issues. I imagine that even with this explanation, there will still be some citi zens who view this GRAMA issue as so important that it would be worth sacrificin g any other objective just to make a point by voting in opposition. I respect th is principled, idealistic view, but I believe that such behavior under our curre nt rules would soon render a legislator impotent. Redistricting As if all of the above were not enough, there was an additional, possibl

y 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 b y 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 wit h regard to many Republican Party positions in the House. It is especially impor tant 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 distric ts that would weaken our influence. Even writing what I have written here may come back to haunt our distric t, 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. 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 HB477 travesty was the use of the closed caucus, which I will do everything in my pow er to eliminate. Ethics What is most disheartening about the comments I am receiving is that man y people look to me to set an example of ethics in the Legislature. I hope my co nstituents will still be able to see me as an example of ethics. To my knowledge, I am the only legislator in the state 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 mak e all of my e-mails, text messages, and documents available under any transparen cy 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 HB477. Thank you for allowing me the privilege of serving you. As always, you m ay contact me by e-mail at kraigpowell@utah.gov or by phone at 435-657-0185. Rep. Kraig Powell serves state House District 54, which encompasses Wasa tch and Duchesne counties and a small segment of Uintah County.

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