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Utah Supreme Court hears case alleging legislative 'log rolling'

Published: Wednesday, April 11 2012 4:28 p.m. MDT

Counselors stand as members of the Utah Supreme Court take their place to give oral arguments in Gregory vs. Shurtleff, a case over the constitutionality of an omnibus education bill passed in 2008. The case was heard at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah Wednesday April 11, 2012.

Al Hartmann,

SALT LAKE CITY — A lawsuit challenging state lawmakers' lumping of more than a dozen bills — including ones that were defeated — into an omnibus education bill in 2008 questions how the Utah Legislature does business.

The Utah Supreme Court heard arguments in the case Wednesday.

"It was at the last minute, in the last two days, that they were bundled together," attorney Alan Smith told the court, which convened at the University of Utah law school. "That's a classic log rolling maneuver."

David Irvine, an attorney and former state legislator, said that practice silences the public.

"(Lawmakers) say, 'Hey, wait a minute. We need the freedom to maneuver and make deals.' But they are only part of the process. The other part is the public. And this shuts the public out of that process."

Irvine and Smith represent 38 Utahns, including current and former legislators and state school board members, who contend that action violated the Utah Constitution. They say it's one step away from the kitchen sink approach Congress takes to legislation.

"The Legislature has no desire to become like Congress where anything goes," said Robert Rees, the Legislature's lawyer.

In 2008, lawmakers rolled 14 separate measures into an omnibus education bill in the last days of the legislative session, including $60 million for public school teacher raises. Some of them had passed the House and Senate on their own, while others were defeated on the floor or in committees.

"There were hostage bills and there were bills that were ransomed in this process," Smith said.

Justice Christine Durham questioned whether folding in already defeated bills put lawmakers into an untenable position to vote for SB2 because they wanted the additional teacher funding. "Why is that not disturbing?" she said.

Rees said there were "numerous" motions on the floor to remove some provisions, but they failed. "They were duly considered," he said.

Lawmakers at the time said SB2 didn't happen in the dead of night and was the result of an entire session of negotiations. They said they posted information on legislative websites and blogs and passed out the details to legislators, reporters and interested residents.

Ultimately, SB2 overwhelmingly passed both chambers in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The lawsuit claims SB2 violated state rules that say bills must address a single subject and have clearly written titles describing their content. A 3rd District judge dismissed those claims in 2009.

The lawsuit further alleges the measure stripped the State School Board of constitutionally vested power to vet textbooks and turned it over to a private contractor. The bill also transferred the board's power to disburse money earmarked for teacher raises to another state department.

On those claims, the judge also ruled in favor of the state.

The plaintiffs appealed the decisions to the Utah Supreme Court, which took the case under advisement after oral arguments Wednesday. Should the court rule for the plaintiffs, the case would be returned to the district court for a trial and further proceedings.

The State School Board objected to SB2, but did not join the lawsuit as a plaintiff.

Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, who attended the hearing, said she believes the state and the Legislature have a strong position.

"This is the way the legislative process works," she said, adding a lot of what goes into a final product has to do with compromise.

The bill at issue does not violate the single subject provision, she said. "This is absolutely about education," Lockhart said. "Everything in it addressed education."

Omnibus bills such as SB2 aren't common in the Utah Legislature. There hasn't been one since 2008.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com Twitter: dennisromboy

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