SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would create a new legislative entity to oversee state and local governments was revived Monday after several GOP lawmakers changed their votes.
HB175 faltered in a House committee earlier this month as a result of "healthy tension" between the branches of government, the bill's sponsor Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, said at the time. Later that day, supporters of the bill held a news conference to pitch the proposed Joint Committee on Governmental Oversight as one that would ensure "transparency, efficiency and accountability."
But the Utah League of Cities and Towns and Gov. Gary Herbert's administration have opposed the bill, concerned it would create an unnecessary layer of government to oversee local jurisdictions.
On Monday, however, HB175 was substituted and amended in the House Government Operations Committee in an attempt to quell concerns of the House Republicans who initially voted against it. It now goes to the House floor.
HB175 would give a nine-member committee made up of six House members and three senators subpoena power to investigate a long list of entities, including local governments, school districts and those within the executive branch.
Changes to the bill adopted Monday specified the body would only investigate upon request of a local government entity.
That change helped "allay most but not all" concerns of Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, who was among six lawmakers — two Democrats and four Republicans — who initially voted against the bill on Feb. 2.
"I still think it's maybe duplicative," Thurston noted. "I think legislative management could use other tools, but if legislative management wants to send issues to this committee, I don't see why they shouldn't if they think it's more effective, more efficient, to have nine citizen legislators look at something instead of professional auditors."
Thurston said he's "comfortable with letting this go onto the next step," noting that he still has concerns, but his "major" concerns were addressed.
Reps. Lee Perry, R-Perry, and Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, also changed their votes. Rep. Merril Nelson, R-Grantsville, however, was the only Republican to remain opposed.
"I'm still trying to understand the problem that's trying to be solved," Nelson said. "It seems to me like the bill creates an unnecessary layer of government."
Nelson pointed out the state already has entities like the Administrative Rules Committee, Legislative Audit Committee and the Political Subdivisions Ethics Review Commission, among others, that already act as "checks to correct any misbehaviors."
"I think it's government creep, it's government growth, government intrusion," Nelson said.
Stratton said the intent of the bill is to be "visionary," to be ready for the rapid growth Utah is experiencing.
"The landscape is changing, and we need to do everything we can as 'Team Utah' to work together to create fidelity and accountability and integrity to the system," he said. "There is so much good and so much that is right in our state … but I know when a tree has a full crop on it, the wind comes and a branch will break here and there. There will be problems and there needs to be tools and effective use of those tools in place."
Stratton told committee members the bill isn't meant necessarily to address a "specific problem," but is "seeking to be proactive."
However, later in the meeting when Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, pressed Stratton on whether any local governments have requested the process, Stratton noted the Utah League of Cities and Towns "went through a very challenging audit" last year.
The audit found the league's former longtime director Ken Bullock improperly charged about $57,000 to the taxpayer-funded group's credit card for personal loans to himself (which he has since paid back), and the league's former administrative services director, Michelle Reilly, used more than $26,000 for personal expenses.
The state auditor recommended a criminal investigation into Reilly for potential misuse of public funds but did not recommend a criminal investigation into Bullock. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said Monday the investigation into Reilly is still ongoing, noting that his office received a "voluminous amount of materials" related to the investigation seven weeks ago.
Reilly's attorney, Greg Skordas, said "there was no crime here" and added that Gill "is wasting a lot of taxpayer money and time."
Stratton said if some local entities find themselves in difficult situations, they'd want a committee to call for assistance without commissioning a full-blown audit.
"Sometimes when someone is in an accident or bleeding, they'll call 911," he said. "I think in good faith there are circumstances when local government entities would say, 'We need some help, there's some friction between local officials and professional staff,' for example."
The Utah League of Cities and Towns remains "staunchly opposed" to the bill, said league President Beth Holbrook, who is also a Bountiful councilwoman.
"This committee would have the power to scrutinize everything from zoning to animal licensing," Holbrook said. "We believe this would create a chilling effect. Local government officials will fear making legislative decisions under threat of being brought in to answer to this highly political committee."
Herbert spokesman Paul Edwards said in a prepared statement Monday that the governor's administration continues to work with Stratton to address their concerns.
"State agencies, counties, cities and school boards have shared with us their significant concerns about this legislation," Edwards said. "We are working with the bill's sponsors to address our serious reservations about the current version of the bill."
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