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Richard Davis: Reforming Utah's caucus system would help education

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 21 2014 11:50 p.m. MST

The governor and the vast majority of legislators listen most closely to caucus delegates who influence their re-election prospects, and surveys of Republican convention delegates have shown they are not much interested in public education.

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Next Monday the Utah State Legislature will convene for this year’s legislative session. Undoubtedly, legislators’ speeches (along with the governor’s own state of the state speech) will include the claim that the state is among the best managed in the nation. They will point to Forbes magazine’s recent assessment that Utah is the fifth best-managed state in the nation.

Unfortunately, this title is misleading. It suggests that Utah’s governor and Legislature are effective at solving the most pressing problem facing the state, but they are not. That problem is the state’s failure to adequately fund its education system to prepare Utah’s future citizens to take their respective places in the global economy.

The state is falling further behind other states in per capita spending and in the amount of the state’s wealth going to education. Education experts already are warning that Utah students’ performance scores will drop significantly as Common Core standards are implemented soon. But the effects of this short-sightedness probably won’t be felt for some years to come when Utah citizens are unable to compete for well-paying jobs because they are not as competent at skills such as writing, reading, and math.

Unfortunately, the governor’s proposed budget increase of $261 million does little to solve the problem. It is a Band-Aid solution when major surgery is essential.

The governor has claimed (and likely will claim again) that he is making a major investment in public education. Legislators also assert they are doing all they can to help public education.

Of course, that is not true. They are not doing all they can. They are doing what Republican caucus delegates tell them to do. The governor and the vast majority of legislators listen most closely to caucus delegates who influence their re-election prospects, and surveys of Republican convention delegates have shown they are significantly less interested in public education than are Utah voters generally.

In order to effect real change in Utah governing officials’ approach to public education, the caucus/convention system must be reformed. Count My Vote cuts out the caucus attendees and convention delegates and places the nomination process squarely in the hands of rank-and-file partisans. It would help give average Utah voters more say in education policy because it would make candidates (and then elected officials) more concerned about the primary electorate than convention delegates. Of course, competitive general elections would be even more effective because it would make elected officials concerned about the whole electorate and not just their fellow partisans.

However, legislators already possess the power to limit convention delegate influence. They could do so by passing legislation reforming the parties’ nominating systems. Sen. Curt Bramble of Provo plans to propose legislation that moves in that direction. His proposed bill would allow those not able to attend caucuses and conventions to still cast ballots. It would open primary elections to unaffiliated voters. (The Democrats already do this, but Republicans do not.) And it would lower the party convention threshold for contesting a primary from 40 percent to 35 percent.

These are positive steps, but they are not enough. The threshold for contesting a primary should be dramatically lower – 10 or 20 percent at most. Voters should be able to choose candidates even if the convention delegates don’t like them. And candidates who want to avoid the convention should be allowed to get on the ballot through petition signatures. Every other state with the caucus/convention system provides more opportunity for losing candidates to contest convention results and gives voters more say in who becomes the nominee. The result of dramatically changing the threshold and offering a bypass mechanism would be frequent primary elections (and perhaps with more than just two candidates) where voters have the last word rather than the current system of rare primaries allowing convention delegates the final say.

Solving Utah’s No. 1 problem and reforming the caucus/convention system are tied together. If Utahns want elected officials to represent their views on public education, they should support change that makes elected officials more accountable to them rather than to a small, unrepresentative group of party activists.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.

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