Most Utah families were quite relieved this past week as the state Legislature convened to repeal HB477. This was a good first step toward the Legislature's acknowledgment that the people of Utah deserve more open government — with the public's business transacted in the light.
There is one more decision that Republican leadership in the Legislature should consider that would take us even further in the "light" direction. For the past couple of decades, the Republican caucus (all the elected Republicans in the legislature) have been meeting each day the Legislature convenes from noon-2 p.m., behind closed doors. No one else is admitted without specific invitation. The Democrats have their own caucus at the same time, but their meeting is open — anyone can attend.
Now would be an excellent time for Republican leadership to open these closed meetings. The theory and practice of holding closed caucus meetings springs from a time when there was a highly contested two-party system in Utah, and party leaders needed to organize to counter the efforts of the other party. It made some sense in that environment for closed meetings. Those days are long in our past. Closed meetings in the context of overwhelming one-party rule allows most of our laws to be introduced, debated and virtually passed totally outside the public eye.
The balance of power in Utah is overwhelmingly Republican and has been for more than 30 years. We have a Republican governor who appears hesitant to veto legislation brought by his colleagues partly because both the Senate and House own a nearly 3-to-1 super majority. This is highly unlikely to change. Multiple opinion polls show that close to 60 percent of the state's population not only consider themselves Republican, many say that voting for a single Democrat is something they just can't do. The fact is Republicans totally determine the fate of all legislation in the end. The closed Republican caucus containing 75 percent of our legislators is tantamount to a closed-door Legislature.
Close observers of the process are often bewildered at how some bills can come seemingly from out of nowhere, move through committees on to the floor and to the governor for signature with lightning speed. Yet our legislators seem equally perplexed (HB477 for example) that people did not know what was going on. The answer is that most of the discussion and debate have taken place in the closed caucus meetings. If you were there, you knew. The rest of us did not.
The one saving grace has been that Republican leadership — for the most part — has been composed of good and noble people. They have had the best interest of the state in their hearts and have earnestly tried to do the right thing. But now is the right time for these good men and women to determine that all debate must be held in the open where our representatives can conduct the public's business in total light and transparency. Absolute power, after all — no matter how good one's heart — has been known to corrupt absolutely.
Dave Thomas is a business and community leader residing in Farmington.
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