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Election reform bill didn't stand a chance

Mary Carlson's reform-minded state election commission was dead even before the 1998 Legislature started. She just didn't know it.

House members voted Carlson's bill down Tuesday 49 to 21, after it was the topic of a rare GOP House caucus discussion. It was clear from that caucus meeting that the bill, sponsored by a Democrat, had little chance.During debate on the House floor, Rep. David Zolman, R-Taylorsville, hammered home that point. The "dominant party" should get the perks and "to the victors go the spoils," he said.

Lt. Gov. Olene Walker has been especially sensitive to equality for the "minority party" he said. "This bill shoots at a problem that doesn't exist."

Although Carlson defended her bill as an "important and necessary addition to our system," a flurry of Zolman's Republican colleagues attacked the concept.

Rep. Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City, asked, "Are there problems that currently exist in the law? Are there examples where the system is broken, where it has failed, where it's not doing an adequate job?"

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, Carlson said. "I hope we don't have the philosophy that we don't handle problems until there's a crisis."

Democrats voted for the bill and Republicans opposed it, with two exeptions. Rep. Jordan Tanner, R-Provo, and Rep. Lloyd Frandsen, R-South Jordan, supported the reform effort.

But, really, the downfall of HB204 started last fall, months before Tuesday's floor discussion.

That's when, top sources in Gov. Mike Leavitt's administration say, word came that Senate President Lane Beattie and House Speaker Mel Brown didn't like it. "We weren't going to stick our necks out on this one," the administration official recently told the Deseret News.

A second blow came in December when Sen. Al Mansell, R-Sandy, decided not to sponsor the bill, which was approved by an interim committee co-chaired by Mansell and Tanner, because he came to worry that the commission would cost more money.

It is rare that House Republicans discuss a specific bill in their caucuses. They prioritize spending bills and task forces, often discuss issues or budget matters or have special interest groups address them.

For 15 minutes or so Tuesday, one after another GOP House member stood to ask pointed questions about Carlson's bill. But, of course, Carlson, a Democrat, wasn't in the Republican caucus.

How much would it cost? Why take state elections powers away from Walker's office when there isn't a problem in how she handles state elections? Isn't this just another case of a state bureaucracy that could grow out of control?

Walker takes no official stand on the bill, even though early in the Leavitt administration she actually proposed a state elections office separate from her operation.

No one says that Walker has been unfair in overseeing elections, lobbyist registration, state and legislative candidate filings and political action committee reporting.

But, Tanner said, the general feeling is a state elections commission, made up of representatives from major political parties, would take "partisanship totally" out of the question.

Not so said Rep. Michael Styler, R-Delta. "You can't make a non-partisan elections commission - can't do it."

Brown said last summer he started asking leaders of other states - who he meets at various legislative conferences - what they thought of such election commissions. He said his conclusion is that commissions cost more money and have more political in-fighting because of make-up.