SALT LAKE CITY — A bill allowing political parties to avoid the direct primary elections that would be required under the Count My Vote initiative was unanimously approved Friday by a legislative committee, but it continues to generate controversy.
The issue centers on an initiative petition drive, termed Count My Vote, that would replace the state's unique caucus and convention system for selecting political party nominees. The petition is designed to put the election changes on the November 2014 ballot, if enough signatures can be gathered.
The bill, SB54, heard by the Senate Business and Labor Committee, is a response to that drive, with Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, calling it a compromise, but others calling it an effort by lawmakers to stop Count My Vote.
Bramble said the bill requires political parties to make changes sought by Count My Vote or face the direct primary called for in the initiative.
Bramble's bill contains all of the language of the initiative. That apparently means that even if Count My Vote gathers more than 100,000 signatures required by mid-April to get the initiative on the ballot and voters approve it, there still may not be direct primaries.
Count My Vote, started by a group of prominent Republicans including former Gov. Mike Leavitt and political consultant LaVarr Webb, who writes a column for the Deseret News, did not send a representative to testify at Friday's hearing.
The organization did, however, rebuke SB54 in a statement released after the bill passed the committee.
"Legislation that intentionally nullifies legal and proper citizen action is not respectful of the constitutional process — or the people," the statement said, comparing the bill to a controversial attempt several years ago to restrict access to government records that was overturned amid public protests.
The statement also said lawmakers have an "inherent conflict" because they would be affected by the passage of Count My Vote, and that "makes it all the more imperative that officeholders avoid any appearance of choosing self-preservation over respect for the process and the voters."
Bramble said, "This isn't undoing the voice of the people. It's a proposed initiative because it hasn't been on the ballot. They haven’t announced that they’ve qualified for signatures. It's an idea they're putting forward."
He said unlike 2011's HB477, dealing with the Government Records Access and Management Act, his bill had a committee hearing and was available for review for weeks.
Bramble also said the Utah Supreme Court has held that the initiative process and the legislative process carry equal weight.
"We're faced with a dilemma. We have an initiative that has significant flaws in it. We had negotiations that broke down between the parties, so this was put forward as a true compromise proposal that would give both sides something that they could claim victory," he said.
Because of what he called flaws in the initiative, Bramble said it's appropriate for the Legislature to do its constitutional duty.
"I know one thing, the Legislature does speak for the people," the senator said.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, questioned why Count My Vote didn't send someone to testify at the hearing.
“They’re doing it all by public relations instead of meeting people face to face,” Hillyard told reporters.
Rich McKeown, the executive co-chairman of Count My Vote, said the organization's testimony wouldn't have had any impact.
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