Utah legislative leaders typically do a good job prioritizing the massive amount of legislation they are presented during the sprint of a 45-day session. They would do well to remember what Ronald Reagan rightly declared as the most feared words in the English language: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” They should also keep in mind that just because they can legislate doesn’t mean they should.
With a thousand bill files on issues ranging from the important to the irrelevant, legislative caution is always wise. In some cases bills seem to be solutions searching for a problem, while the unintended consequences in certain legislation seem to have been ignored or glossed over completely.
Utah politicians regularly tout their commitment to battling big government, promoting free-market principles and the Constitution while getting government out of the business of picking winners and losers. It is occasionally curious that legislation is introduced that seems contrary to those commitments and is more in the model of what Reagan said we should fear.
In 2016, a bill that dealt with noncompete agreements within employment contracts was introduced in Utah. It clearly wasn’t ready and was moved too fast, a sentiment shared even by the proponents of the bill. Nevertheless, after nine substitution bills in the Senate, there was a change to noncompete agreements that seemed to be a good faith adjustment to the practice.
Two years later, however, another bill aims to eliminate noncompete agreements, but this time it singles out news media — and no other sector. It is at odds with free-market and limited government principles, not to mention the First Amendment. It also positions the Legislature as a source of uncertainty and political gamesmanship in the state, which undermines our thriving economy and raises questions about the government’s willingness to target specific businesses or industries.
As news has become more and more of a commodity, the reliance on branded journalists, reporters and personalities has become more important than ever. This requires win-win contracts, including noncompete agreements, between talented employees and committed employers.
The vast majority of news media employees do not work under contracts, particularly noncompete agreements. Most of the employees who do have noncompete clauses are on-air personalities. These on-air employees bring their talent skill to the news organization. The news media also make significant investments to further develop the skills and talents of these employees while also spending substantial amounts of money promoting, marketing and establishing the employee as a trusted voice and valuable resource to the community.
Both employee and employer have leverage to negotiate these contracts. The employee can ask for the certainty and financial guarantees that come with such a contract. The employer can invest in developing and marketing the employee as part of the organizational brand with confidence knowing the employee can’t walk out the door in the afternoon and start working for a competitor that night. Done properly, this type of contract in news media promotes trust and confidence between employees and employers and deepens a shared commitment to rigorous journalism and the effectiveness of a free press under the First Amendment.
This targeted effort against the news media in HB241 is not about indentured servitude — it is about contracts of value. If a potential employee and a potential employer agree to the terms of a mutually beneficial contract, why should the Legislature interfere?5 comments on this story
Proponents of HB241 have made the case that they have come to help employees. In reality, if the bill were to pass, it would do much more harm than help to employees of news organizations. Most news companies would end all contracts and have far less motivation to develop, market or promote on-air personalities or talent — creating transactional employment relationships that undermine confidence, eliminate employee security and end the incentive for reciprocally beneficial investments in people.
So as HB241 comes up for a vote with the claim, “I’m from the government and I am here to help,” be afraid. Be very afraid.