Tuesday, March 22, 2011


By Kim. Burningham,
Revised, March 19, 2011

An amazing arrogance of power is evidenced in the actions of some Utah legislators. That arrogance is exacerbated by a penchant for secrecy. Consider three points:
1. The dangers of an arrogance of power
J. William Fulbright, former chair of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in his 1996 book, The Arrogance of Power, warned: “arrogance of power…has afflicted, weakened, and in some cases destroyed great nations in the past.”
Montesquieu, 18th Century French political thinker, in The Spirit of the Laws said, “Men entrusted with power tend to abuse it.”
Nineteenth century English historian, Lord Acton emphasized: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Perhaps the most dramatic indictment of abuse of power was recently called to my attention by a friend: it is found in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. We all know the famous lines of guilt uttered by Lady Macbeth, “Out, damned spot! out, I say!” But immediately after that well known expression of guilt by Lady Macbeth—she who egged her equivocating husband on to regicide, and she who haply washed her daggers in the blood of kings—apparently worried for a moment about her guilt. That guilt, however, she washed away with the acknowledgement: “What need we fear who knows it, when none call our power to accompt [account]?”
When people have power and especially when the exercise of that power is done in secrecy where accountability is negated, abuse runs arrogantly wild! Representative Kraig Powell has in the days since the Legislative session days talked specifically about the Legislature’s closed meetings where great power is wielded resulting in intimidation. He claims that the combination of the HB477 being introduced in a closed caucus, an expectation from House leadership to support it, the fear of retribution for opposing those in power, and rules applicable only at the end of the session, "seemed similar to blackmail."
As a former 15 year member of the House of Representatives in Utah, I have sat in such closed meetings, and I know that Representative Powell speaks the truth.
The arrogance of power exacerbated by secrecy is, in my opinion, a serious danger in Utah.
2. Political arrogance in the recent session of the Utah Legislature
In the Utah Legislature power has been amassed in one party. Of 75 representatives, Republicans hold 58 seats; of 29 senators, there are 22 Republicans. With such concentration, the Democratic minority only provides a hollow voice. Even if the Governor disagrees, the Legislature can be veto-proof. When the majority party decides to move in a particular direction, and if independent members do not feel they can raise questions, there is no stopping the majority. Our just-completed legislative session illustrates this abuse:
HB 477 (Restriction on Public Access to Government Records sponsored by Representative Dougall) reeked of arrogance and was largely advanced under the cloak of secrecy and speed. The bill was first publicly seen when it was introduced near the end of the session on the House floor March 1. In less than three days, committee hearings were held and votes taken in both the Senate and House. The decision was made. Only one Republican voted against the bill. This despite considerable public outcry and a poll which reported that 90% of the people thought the bill “would hurt the public’s ability to monitor the legislative process.” This bill which further shrouds legislative actions in secrecy raises the standard of evidence required to obtain GRAMA information, increases the cost to those in the public who are investigating, and prohibits certain types of messages from even being examined. True, after much public remonstration, the bill was recalled, but then the only significant change was to delay the effective date. Legislators and the Governor promised to talk about the public’s concerns after the decision had been made.
In connection with that bill, it is important to discuss Substitute SB 165 (Election Law Amendments sponsored by Senator Bramble). This bill which significantly reduces the public’s right to affect our laws by citizen initiatives and referenda suddenly appeared at the top of the House Reading calendar and was voted on immediately. Arrogantly, the bill was rushed for the signature of the Governor to become law before the public filed a referendum on HB477. A coincidence? If this bill applies to HB477, it would make reversing the bill by the referendum process much more difficult. SB165 raises the bar in terms of number of signatures required, prohibits gathering signatures electronically, and establishes other requirements that make it more likely that petitions originating with the citizens will be disqualified. Again, speed and lack of public scrutiny were utilized to reduce citizen oversight and increase legislative power!
Two other illustrations also raise alarm: In SB 44 (by Senator Dayton) the independent voice of the state tax commission and the constitutional revision commission is reduced. In HB 75 (by Representative Oda) the gun free-zone around the school is gone! According to Senator Lyle Hillyard, “you can walk on the sidewalk in front of a school carrying an AK-47.” Both passed despite public opposition, and in the case of HB75, a public poll which showed 60% favored keeping the buffer zone.
On the other hand, HB 146 (by Representative Janice Fisher) was not even considered! It would have prohibited dizzying conflicts of interest on the Utah Transit Authority’s board but was held in the Rules Committee. One wonders if the fact that House Majority Whip Greg Hughes is also Chairman of the Board of UTA played a role in the bill being sidelined.
The past legislative session provided evidence that the arrogance of power is rampant, and that speed and secrecy are used to cement that power!
3. Suggestions to produce better Legislative deliberation, reduce abuse of power, and increase openness.
If the arrogance of power I have described is to be checked, several alternatives are possible:
1. The electorate of the State should elect a more balanced representation. Hopefully, the events of the past week will arouse the electorate and help bring about this result.
2. A direct public primary instead of the current convention system should be implemented. This would likely reduce the power of extreme wings in either party, while increasing the power of the middle, more typical, citizens. This has already been done in many other states.
3. Elected representatives can pay more attention to the will of the majority of our citizens. In a day when public opinion is much more easily ascertained, it should be weighed more heavily.
4. The deliberation process should be open to public view. The Senate of the State of Utah almost always holds their caucuses in closed meeting. Whereas in recent years, House caucuses had become increasingly open, Speaker Lockhart this year reversed the trend in the Republican caucuses, and almost all caucuses are closed to the public. Representative Powell has indicated that he will work toward opening up the caucuses. Parenthetically I will tell you that many years ago when I served in the legislature, I sponsored for several years legislation to bring “sunshine” to the legislator’s caucus system. Currently it is exempted from Utah’s open meetings laws. I sincerely hope Representative Powell is more successful in this regard than I was.
5. To achieve greater transparency, helping both legislators and citizens understand the implications of the bills before the Legislature, ample time and opportunity for debate must be provided. Again, I note that Representative Kraig Powell has already begun the process of requiring this change. I believe it is critical.
6. HB 477 should be repealed, or at least significantly changed. In this regard, you should know that a group of citizens headed by Steve Maxfield have filed a referendum to reverse the action on 477. They will have a huge task to gain the required number of signatures in 40 days! One advantage is that referenda do not have the onerous requirement that the signature goal must be achieved in 26 of 29 senate districts. I urge all citizens to consider signing, and if convinced, help gather signatures from others.
7. SB 165 which makes initiatives and referenda more difficult to achieve should likewise be changed. Maxfield has filed an initiative to accomplish this action. For an initiative he has at least until next Spring to gain the necessary signatures. Keep your ears open for more information.
8. Individual members of the legislature can demonstrate more independence, showing less reliance on the party political machine. Some of our dedicated public servants already demonstrate this admirable quality. Encourage them! Re-elect independent minded legislators, and use your franchise to remove legislators who are more interested in power than in open, democratic decision making.
9. Finally, the ethics initiative advanced by Utahns for Ethical Government should appear on the 2012 ballot, and the public should vote for it. Among other ethical guidelines, passage will establish campaign contribution limits, prohibit Legislative leaders from buying leadership positions, and stop legislators from also serving as lobbyists,
Let me take you back to Fulbright once again. When legislators follow the political machine, Utahns continue to be the victims of what Fulbright referred to as “a kind of dizziness or giddiness inspired by the possession of great power.”
He warns that an “excess of pride [is] born of power,” and that “power has a way of undermining judgment, of planting delusions of grandeur in the minds of otherwise sensible people.”
Unbridled arrogance, he said, may end up “destroying the very thing you are trying to defend.”

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