Lawmakers in the Utah House have instituted a new rule making it easier to put someone under oath before testifying in front of a legislative committee. This also would make lying in front of a committee a second-degree felony, which could result in up to 15 years in prison.
Somehow, we would feel better about this if lawmakers, themselves, were held to the same standard during their campaigns.
Utah's part-time, citizen Legislature is effective because of its informal, close-to-the-people atmosphere. The public has greater access to the system when its representatives are people who live and work among them. This new rule, however, sends a broad message about distrust, driving a wedge between lawmakers and the people.
And let's be clear. It is a not-so-subtle message to the executive branch and members of advocacy groups, both of which feel vulnerable to budget cuts during these tough times. Many lawmakers were skeptical of claims by prison officials that they would have to release hundreds of inmates if cuts enacted last month were to be enforced. Had they been under oath, the thinking goes, they might have been more realistic about what might happen. Or, had they been under oath, they might find themselves hoping for an early release themselves some day from the very prison system about which they were exaggerating.
Get serious. Politics and exaggeration go together like weather forecasting and optimism. The true effect of budget cuts depends on management decisions. A manager may eventually find better alternatives to the dire ones presented at a legislative hearing, but it is not all together unreasonable to believe inmates would be released early, particularly since that very thing has happened in other states already.
Besides, who is going to be in charge of determining which "facts" are correct and which ones constitute felonious lying?
The most telling part of this new rule concerns the people it exempts — the lawmakers themselves. No one should be surprised by this. They have exempted themselves from lots of things, including the open meetings requirements they impose on other governments. In this case, though, it smacks of arrogance.
Lawmakers already had the power to place people under oath. There was no need for this new rule. We join the governor and lots of frustrated advocates in saying it ought to be removed.