Lawmakers took a first step Monday toward creating a committee that would oversee local governments, school boards and executive branch agencies, using power that supporters say they’ve always had but haven’t used.
It was the second attempt to advance HB175 through committee to the House floor. The bill is a priority for House leaders, but it has split Republicans, some of whom fear the bill would allow lawmakers to micromanage local governments and school boards that oppose the bill as an overreach by the legislative branch.
“Government power is most subject to abuse when it is consolidated, so part of our governmental structure is to diffuse power. We separate it, we divide it,” said Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville. He called the committee proposed by the bill “government creep, it’s government growth, it’s government intrusion.”
Representatives from school boards, cities and other local governments have rallied against the bill this session. No one other than legislators has spoken in favor of the bill during public comment.
Supporting lawmakers say the Legislature needs to create a new committee that can investigate, audit or study waste, fraud, abuse, compliance with state law, and “to determine whether the entity takes the action in accordance with best practices and the best interest of the citizens that the entity serves.”
They’re resisting declarations by opponents that the Legislature is overstepping its bounds, saying it has constitutional authority to oversee governance throughout the state.
“There is an umbrella related to the stewardship that we have as a Legislature,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem. “The intent of the legislation ... is to deal with laws that are passed by the Legislature.
“We encourage local control,” he added. “We encourage the wise stewardship in the law.”
Stratton had failed to convince a majority of the House Government Operations Committee of his vision earlier this month, when Democrats and Republicans voted to prevent the measure from hitting the House floor.
But in a signal that passing the bill was a priority for House leadership, Republicans held a news conference the following day to state the bill wasn’t dead for the session. Three Republicans – Reps. Norm Thurston, Lee Perry and Justin Fawson – voted to send the bill to the floor after initially voting against the measure.
Feb. 2: Utah House Republicans aren’t giving up their bid to create a powerful new committee to investigate state and local agencies
House Republicans aren’t letting an early and surprising defeat stop their attempt to create a powerful new oversight committee.
Hours after their own members voted against sending a bill to the floor that would create this committee, they held a news conference pitching the idea again. They pushed back against claims made by the school boards, cities, counties and the governor’s office, who all said the bill would unduly expand the authority of the legislative branch.
Instead, HB175 supporters said Friday, the bill would recognize authority the legislative branch already possesses under the Utah Constitution.
“That authority already exists, but we haven’t been using it,” said Sen. Curtis Bramble, a Provo Republican who has joined the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, to work on the bill.
If revived after failing a committee vote Thursday, HB175 would create an oversight committee with subpoena power and the ability to question local government and executive agency rulemaking and budgeting. It also could refer investigation findings of suspected crimes to prosecutors.
“There’s not more power here,” Stratton said. “It’s a structural change.”
Opponents, including four House Republicans on the committee that declined to send the bill to the House floor, said the committee overlapped with existing committees.
It’s not just opposition from local governments and Gov. Gary Herbert that House Republicans have to overcome to pass the bill. Senate Republicans showed they’re not sold on the idea, either.
“I haven’t seen any deficiency” that would necessitate a new oversight committee in Utah, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser said Friday. He noted there are legislative auditors who can dig into issues as they arise.
A lobbyist for county governments that would be subject to oversight from the new committee said there were changes they’d want to see “to get us anywhere close” to supporting the bill.
“Stay tuned,” Bramble said.
Create a new oversight committee that would investigate “waste, fraud, misconduct, or abuse,” along with oversight of budgeting and accounting of local governments and state agencies. - Read full text
Feb. 1: Cities, counties team with governor to block bill that would create powerful new oversight committee at the statehouse
On the first day of the legislative session, House Speaker Greg Hughes told his colleagues they should push to claim more power as a counterbalance to the executive. They swung and missed on their first try Thursday after a backlash from local governments and the Governor’s Office.
Several House Republicans joined Democrats to block a bill that would have created a potent new legislative committee with oversight over local governments, school boards and state agencies.
Lawmakers split over whether HB175 represented an expansion of the part-time Legislature’s role beyond its rightful boundaries or if they were simply flexing their constitutionally endorsed authority.
Despite House leadership’s support of the bill, six members of the House Government Operations Committee sided with opponents and it failed to advance.
“The Legislature already has the authority to repeal administrative rules,” Paul Edwards, spokesman for Gov. Gary Herbert, said in an email Wednesday when asked about HB175. “But this bill would essentially place the Legislature in the middle of the day-to-day operations of executive branch agencies, thereby threatening the important balance of powers in state government.”
The bill would have created the Joint Committee on Governmental Oversight, which the bill’s sponsor compared to the congressional panel once led by former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz.
The Legislature could authorize the new oversight committee to investigate “waste, fraud, misconduct, or abuse,” along with oversight of local budgeting and accounting. The committee could also request permission from legislative leaders to launch an investigation.
The committee could look into local government actions as well as those of state agencies to see if they were “in accordance with best practices and the best interest of the citizens that the entity serves.”
The panel would have subpoena power and could refer a case to a county attorney for prosecution.
If it found issues with a regulation, the committee could ask the governor to repeal it or ask legislative leaders to sue.
Rep. Keven Stratton, the Orem Republican who sponsored HB175, used the aspen grove as an analogy for governance in Utah. Like the state’s Pando aspen grove, the largest known living organism on earth, governance by one agency affects others, he said.
“We have to remember when one of those aspen trees gets sick it impacts everything,” Stratton said.
The broad scope of the proposed committee drew opposition from counties, cities, schools and private entities.
“Local school boards and community council members are already highly regulated, checked and balanced,” said Heather Bennett, Salt Lake School Board president. The Utah State Superintendents Association and Utah School Boards Association both voted to oppose the bill.
“This bill is way overbroad in that it purports to regulate, not only rules and regulations of state agencies, but local elected agencies like school boards, county school boards and even the state school board,” said Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, who voted against the bill. “Those elected school boards are first and foremost accountable to the people that elected them.”
Four Republicans and two Democrats voted to prevent the bill from moving to the House floor. But, like the aspen grove, one failure doesn’t mean the bill is dead for the session.
“It’s only day 11,” said Aundrea Peterson, a spokeswoman for the speaker. “We wouldn’t be surprised if we saw that bill come up again.”