Utah Legislative Tenure

Term Limits -- Term Limits - Utah Legislative Tenure

First I would like to thank Steve Urquhart for his comments. And in case anyone got the wrong impression, I had no intention to spar with Steve over this issue or single him out. I respect Rep. Urquhart for his openness on this and many other issues. He has convincingly demonstrated his honest belief that “sunlight [is] the best disinfectant.” The major reason that I singled him out is that I know that he is one member of the legislature that understands the value of blogging discussions.

All that being said, this post is mainly some of my further findings after his comments to my previous post. He said that term limits came in a wave in 1994, but it would be more accurate to say that 1994 was the tail end of the wave. 15 states enacted term limits before 1994, 3 more (including Utah) did so in 1994, and 3 have enacted term limits since 1994. Of the 6 states that have repealed their term limit laws (that’s 28% of states that had such laws), it appears that none of those laws ever lasted long enough to limit the term of any legislator. No state where term limits actually started limiting terms has gone back. My assessment would be that Utah retreated from that legislation prematurely.

The second part of Steve’s response was quite enlightening:

Of course, I realize that people can, and will, argue that we just want to hold the offices for life. That’s their right, and for some legislators it might be true. But people should consider the average lifespan of a legislator. In the House (largely through self-selection), it is right around 4 years. (I heard that number and have never independently verified it; but, it seems accurate. I’ve been there 7 years, and there aren’t many Reps who’ve been there longer than I have).

Since he had not verified the 4 year average I went to the website for the Utah Legislature (a very good site, by the way) and did some quick checking on the 75 members of the house and all 29 senators. In the Senate the mean term length is 7 years with an average of 6.93 so by the time we next have elections the average term will be sitting at 8 years (the longest current term being 18). 14 of the 29 have served between 3 and 7 years, most of the other 15 have served more than 7 years.

In the House, where Steve serves, the mean length of current consecutive service is 5 years with an average of about 5.2 so the average will be 6 years before we next vote. The are a number of representatives who have served 3 years or less consecutively who have previously served in the House, sometimes for more than a decade. If we factor in lifetime service for these representatives the average goes up to nearly 5.5 years. About 70% of the members of the house have served no longer than Steve, although there are many who have served 7 years like he has.

It is comforting to see that we have a pretty good rate of turnover in our state and I hope that it stays that way. So long as we have consistent turnover I think we need to focus more on correcting the imbalance of power between the major parties – as Obi wan had suggested – at least here in Utah.

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About David

David is the father of 8 extremely organized children (4 girls / 4 boys) who is constantly seeking answers to tough questions related to parenting, education and politics while moonlighting for 40 hours each week as a technology professional. He also enjoys cooking, gardening, and sports.
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Comments

7 Responses to Utah Legislative Tenure

  1. Jason Black says:

    I’m not quite sure I understand the need for the balancing of the two parties. I keep reading something to that effect on this blog, but I don’t get it. If a majority of voters come down on one side of an issue, then that side takes precedence. If a majority fall to one side of the political party spectrum, then the party of the majority leads.

    Here in Missouri, we have a very evenly balanced political spectrum. We have a senator from each party, a 5-4 split in congress, a closely divided state legislature and evenly split statewide office holders. Is that what you would like to see in Utah? The only reason we have such a split here is because the voters are distributed that way in Missouri. Would it be appropriate to have this same layout of leadership if 80% of Missouri’s voters were liberals or conservatives? I don’t think so. So why should Utah, a state politically dominated by conservatives, have an evenly divided legislature? The voters apparently like the situation, or they wouldn’t keep voting for the same party. Fairness rejects the notion that a one sided constituency should have to have many of their policies directed by the opposition party.

    Can someone explain to me what kind of balance of power you’re wanting to see in Utah, and your logic supporting it?

  2. David says:

    Jason,

    You ask a very good question. I talk a lot about the imbalance in Utah. The fact is that the state is mostly conservative and, in fact, I have no problem with that being reflected in our legislature. The problem I see is that because a solid majority of our citizens have identified with a single party it has allowed that one party to bully the minority in the legislature on many issues.

    In the U.S. Senate the minority party virtually always has enough votes to filibuster when they think it necessary, and I don’t believe there has ever been a time when the minority party has not had enough votes to prevent any legislation (such as a veto override) which required a super-majority. The minority party does not always do so, but they can when necessary. In Utah that is not the case. The Republicans can safely ignore the democrats so long as they don’t incite the ire of their (very docile) constituents.

    That is problem number one, but what really irks me is that because the voters in this state identify with the Republicans so much the Republicans hardly have to represent their voters, they just have to be able to get an (R) next to their name. People fall on a sliding scale of conservative or liberal – they are not simply right or left. If the scale read 0 for fully liberal and 100 for utterly conservative I would say that the people of Utah would register and average of 60 with scores ranging from 25 to 85. On the other hand the actions of the legislature seem to rate at about 80 on that scale – it is on the same end as the majority, but it is not representative of the majority. That is the real imbalance.

    It’s fine with me if we have a legislature that is 80% Republican, but if the citizens rate 60 on the scale I talked about then the legislation should rate pretty close to 60 as well.

  3. Very well put, David. It’s partly a matter of accountability; there simply is no true mechanism here for it.

  4. Mark Towner says:

    The problem I see goes a little bit further than Steve or any elected official wants to admit. This goes both ways for the Dems and GOP so this is not restricted to either party. Steve is correct, there is turnover in the Legislature, but it is controlled by the very elected officials that are leaving.

    Having been on the “inside” of the Republican Party all my life, I have never seen a more “the fix is in” system anywhere else in the country. An elected Representative here in Utah (from either party) needs only a handful (about 50) friends and neighbors to keep happy each two years. The Senators only need these people every four years. The caucus system here in Utah can and will continue to be gamed by skilled operatives.

    The other issue is in Utah is their really is no true turnover. When an elected official decides to leave the Legislature, they essentially hand pick their replacement and just before their term is up they “retire”. The local county party holds a special caucus meeting of the delegates in that district. Usually this is only attended by “diehard” party people and those “friends” of the retiring legislator. The retiring legislator then in the meeting introduces their handpicked replacement to all the delegates, and then “nominates” them when the meeting is called for a vote. I would say a nearly 100% success for this strategy is used by those elected officials. These caucus meetings may have only a handful of people. So the fix is in.

    Then these hand picked replacements immediately are sworn into office and become the incumbent for the next election cycle. It is almost impossible to replace an incumbent in this state. Both sides know this and take advantage of this to maintain their seats in the Legislature.

    The only way this will change is for the citizens to replace the caucus system and have open primary’s to select the candidates for the general election.

  5. David says:

    Thanks for sharing that Mark.

    Before I finished reading your comment I was thinking of asking if you had any ideas on how to break up the perpetual-rotating-incumbent cycle, but you answered that question so I’ll go straight to the follow-up question. As an experienced insider, how do you think we should approach getting that change enacted?

  6. Reach Upward says:

    When it comes to Utah’s legislative races, I’m sure that the system often functions as Mark suggests, but it has rarely been the case in my local district. I do not see that open primaries would function any better than the caucus system. Anybody can attend a caucus meeting, but relatively few do. Anybody registered with a political party can vote in their party’s primary election, but relatively few do.

    An open primary system would effectively be an early general election in most House districts. And even in an open primary, somebody has to determine who gets on the ballot. Those that are sufficiently interested to get involved help make that determination today. What would we do if we were to determine that parties have no right to control who gets on the ballot under their banner? Would we allow anyone that signs up to be listed? The result could be a choice of 14 candidates at the primary. Local elections with such a broad spectrum of candidates tend to have even lower turnout than elections with two or three candidates and incumbents are favored even more highly in such elections. Marketers have long known that when faced with an overwhelming number of choices, consumers (and voters) often refuse to choose or will choose the old standby, even if they’re not particularly satisfied.

    Another option in such broad spectrum elections is to have a subsequent run-off election. These are expensive and traditionally have even lower turnout than today’s primaries. Thus, a small number of voters select the candidates anyway.

    It’s tempting to want open primaries, but they are not inherently superior to our current system.

  7. Mark Towner says:

    Reach Upward,

    Having lived in Washington State and Alaska the primary system seems to be a more open choice for the people to decide, not the hard line left or right. Look at how moderate Republicans are treated here in Utah, even elected ones. You are a RINO if you do not agree 100% with the power brokers within the party.

    48 of the 50 states have open primaries; it seems to work for them?

    As long as our current system decides the election on caucus night, nothing will change. Our elected officials don’t want it changed for obvious reasons, so what to do?

    What chance does a candidate (especially a woman) that is fiscally conservative but socially moderate have in ever receiving the nomination from either major party here in Utah, especially in Salt Lake City? How about zero, nada, zilch.

    Municipal Elections use the open primary system and it seems to work there. I happen to know for a fact that many Democrats who live in primarily Republican districts attend the Republican caucus meetings, because the Democrats have already decided who will challenge the Republican incumbent, and there is no need to attend the Demo caucus meeting.

    The third parties here in Utah all have some kind of issue that drives them. The Green party is the environment. The constitution party is even more right wing than the GOP. The people choice party showed there are voters that wanted to vote for somebody other and a DEM or GOP, or maybe they though the logo was cute.

    So what to do? You can’t get a constitutional amendment before the voters without it passing the Legislature, so we again have no say in how we elect our officials.

    This is why I have decided to form a new political party here in Utah called “The Unaffiliated Voters Party of Utah”. The goal is to get enough signatures to put this party on the ballot, and allow voters to choose the person, not the party that best represents their issues and communities.

    Mark E. Towner

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