Give State Rep. Glen E. Brown of Coalville, Utah credit for being sensible and flexible.
Just how sensible and flexible can be seen from the change of heart he has had on HB213, the highly controversial bill he has been pushing in the 1989 Legislature to "sunset" all the special service districts in the state.Instead of eliminating the legal authorization for these districts and renewing it only after a review convinces the Legislature that continued approval is appropriate, Rep. Brown is talking now about merely having the Legislature review the special service districts the way it usually conducts studies.
Certainly a close but less threatening look at the districts is in order.
The trouble with HB213 as it now reads is that it is much too sweeping and drastic.
It would sunset the 200 or so special service districts in Utah all at once rather than sunsetting a few at a time, as is done when federal agencies and state operations are subjected to sunset laws.
The sunsetting requirements of HB213 evidently would apply not only to the various sewer and water, library, mosquito abatement, irrigation, and recreation districts around the state, but to even such entities as the Utah Transit Authority and the Salt Lake International Airport Authority.
By raising doubts about the continued existence of these various districts, HB213 would make it extremely hard or even impossible for the districts to raise money by bonding.
There also are serious doubts about the constitutionality of the bill. If a special service district were permanently eliminated, the measure provides for counties and cities to assume the district's indebtedness. But cities and counties are not always in a position to assume extra indebtedness and still be able to bond. Besides, legislation that impairs a bond or contract obligation evidently would violate the contract clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Maybe all these problems are why no other state is known to apply sunset provisions to special service districts even though many states sunset other government operations at the state level.
Even so, HB213 has served a useful purpose by alerting officials of the special service districts to some of the problems they have in terms of how the public perceives the districts.
With some 200 districts in the state, they have proliferated so much that the public doesn't always keep close track of what the districts do even though the districts levy taxes.
That's why voter turnout is often low when the districts hold elections. Another reason is that such elections are held at odd times rather than in conjunction with major elections for state or local offices.
Another public relations problem is created by the existence of big financial reserves in some districts. Though some such reserves are justified as a tool for getting bonds, it isn't clear that all of the reserves are warranted.
Maybe some districts could be consolidated. Certainly it shouldn't be hard to schedule district elections in ways to elicit greater participation by the voters. Though the districts serve such a wide variety of purposes that it would be folly to treat all of them identically, there may be room for more uniform practices and procedures.
The point is that any such problems can and should be handled on a case by case basis rather than in one swoop that threatens mass extinction. By all means, let's take a close look at Utah's special service districts, generate public discussion, and ask tough questions. But when it comes to reforms, let's use a scalpel, not a hacksaw.