The Davis Education Association wants Utah lawmakers to let the sun shine on their closed caucuses.
On Saturday, the Davis County contingent will ask the Utah Education Association Spring House of Delegates to consider running a statewide citizen referendum that would require all legislative meetings conducted at the Capitol during the Legislature to be held in public."For several sessions, we've had some concerns about decisions made in meetings where members of the public could not attend," said DEA President Kalyn Denny.
While the UEA resolution doesn't mention which legislators hold closed meetings, they clearly aim their citizens initiative drive at Republicans. The majority party, both in the House and Senate, held a number of closed caucuses in the 1997 and 1998 Legislatures to discuss gasoline taxes and a number of other budget matters. Political caucus meetings are specifically exempted from the Utah Open Meetings Act.
Senate President Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful, said the Utah Legislature "has by far the most open process" of any of the 50 states "bar none."
He almost dared the UEA to start a citizen initiative drive. For then, Beattie said, citizens would see how "these kind of special interest groups" misuse their political power and money "to effect public policy - and they aren't elected by anyone."
"We understand that there needs to be some closed meetings for party business," Denny said. "But when our Legislature is so strongly weighted to one party, we think it would be more in keeping with the spirit of the Open Meeting Law to hold those sessions in public."
Democrats, who number 20 in the 75-member House and nine in the 29-member Senate, usually conduct open caucuses, unless - as the Open Meetings Act allows - they are closed to get updates on lawsuits or discuss employee matters.
But Beattie said Democrats are just sneaky about their meetings. "I suppose we (Republicans) could go off (Capitol) Hill and hold some meetings. But we don't."
The proposal to be presented Saturday would direct UEA staff to "research the feasibility of sponsoring a statewide referendum" over the issue. No doubt one item the teacher union staff will study is how lawmakers in the 1998 session made it more difficult to get citizen initiatives on the ballot. Lawmakers passed, and Gov. Mike Leavitt signed into law, a bill that increases from 15 to 20 the number of counties where a threshold number of voter signatures must be obtained to certify initiative petitions to voters.
"There is a growing public concern that too many meetings involving legislators and pending legislation take place behind closed doors without the benefit of a free and open public discussion," reads the DEA proposal to the teacher-delegates.
"Party leaders use `caucus' meeting as an excuse to bar the public from hearing the internal debates and from knowing how positions and decisions are arrived at," the proposal states.
A statewide referendum would send a "clear and strong message to the Legislature that the public wants its business conducted in an open and honest forum, with full and complete sunlight."
Said Denny, "They (lawmakers) need to know people think it's wrong. I don't think it's the desire of all of the people participating in these meetings that they be closed."
Beattie said legislative leaders can never win the public opinion battle over closed caucuses. In any poll, "people will always say open the meetings. But when you sit down one-on-one and tell them what you do in those meetings - how you arrive at a joint position on a political matter (like how much to spend on this or that program), they say, `Sure, I can see that,' " said Beattie.
He said that if the UEA takes up a petition drive to open GOP caucuses, Sen. Howard Stephenson's efforts to hinder government union political fund-raising will be the real beneficiary.
In the 1998 session, Stephenson, R-Draper, got the Senate to approve a bill that would prohibit government entities from gathering union PAC contributions via payroll deduction. The bill would have crippled the political fund raising efforts of the UEA - Stephenson's main target.
The UEA initiative petition "would be great evidence of a special interest group trying to create public policy," said Beattie - something to be avoided.
Stephenson's bill failed in the House, but he said he may try to run it again in 1999.