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Are lawmakers out of touch?

Dust off most any campaign brochure from last November's election, and chances are you will find plenty of pledges to "represent the will of the people."

Which begs the question: Are Utah's 104 part-time lawmakers — who wind up their 45-day 2003 session on Wednesday — truly representative of their 2.3 million constituents?

A Deseret News review of more than 30 public opinion polls conducted for the newspaper and KSL-TV by Dan Jones & Associates since January 2000 shows the majority of Utah's lawmakers are in some ways out of step with how the public feels about 15 major issues ranging from funding education to late-term abortions.

But lawmakers say their elections, or more accurately their re-elections, are the ultimate public opinion poll.

"Polling is a snapshot of public sentiment at one point in time and based on limited information," Senate Majority Whip John Valentine, R-Orem, said. "We tend to make our decisions based on all the information."

Jones, who has conducted surveys in Utah and for the Deseret News for more than 30 years, said it is true that sometimes lawmakers have more information on an issue than the general public.

"But on many issues the public is well-informed. And when the public is well-informed, they make the right decisions, I've seen over the years. And at those times, legislators would do well to heed the majority (of citizens), especially if it is a large majority," said Jones, who teaches politics and polling at the University of Utah.

One such issue could be the repeal of term limits — 76 percent of Utahns don't want them repealed, but a bill removing the current 12-year term limit on state officials has already passed the Senate this session and appears it will pass the House also.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, is the sponsor of the term-limits repeal. He is also the sponsor of a bill calling for a task force study of the future of hotter radioactive waste in Utah. Public opinion polls show overwhelming public opposition to such waste, but the Legislature this session rejected a ban.

Bramble worries the public might not look kindly if lawmakers see themselves as somehow wiser than the general public.

"Some would perceive that as arrogant," he said, "when the reality is we have access to much more information on specific issues."

Bramble cites his experience with a group of Republican women from Utah County who visited the Capitol and were opposed to the hotter waste. When he explained the need to study the issue further, the women were unanimous in their support of the study, he said.

'Will of the vocal'

Generally, information on complicated issues comes from special-interest groups and lobbyists who are paid to make sure lawmakers know points of view that might have escaped the general public's attention. And high-pressure e-mail and phone campaigns from small-but-vocal advocacy groups are highly effective.

"I'm always trying to separate the will of the people, which I do pay attention to, from the will of the vocal," said Rep. Dave Ure, R-Kamas, one of the conservative leaders in the House. "Too often people can listen to the will of the vocal because they are so loud."

The Republican majority's departures from surveyed public opinion have not gone unnoticed by minority Democrats, who scratch their heads in amazement that Utahns consistently vote Republican while polls, they say, show public sentiments are often more in line with how Democrats vote in the Legislature.

They point to overwhelming public opposition to guns in schools, except for weapons carried by law enforcement officers. "But when we argue for reasonable gun laws, we lose those elections," said Senate Minority Whip Ron Allen, D-Stansbury Park.

The reason, Allen believes, is that public opinion polls tend to gauge the sentiments of all Utahns. But elections are decided by roughly 30 percent of registered voters, those who are most excited about specific issues.

Historically, the conservative wing of Utah's Republican Party has been phenomenal when it comes to getting out the vote, Allen said. That vote does not necessarily represent the majority view but rather the view of vocal minorities, he added.

"Utahns strongly favor our positions but consistently don't vote for (Democrats)," he said. "They say one thing and vote the other way. And there are so many, the majority, who never get involved."

Fallible polls?

That lends itself to the adage that Utahns are getting the government they deserve on Capitol Hill.

Perhaps the most telling evidence was a recent Deseret News/KSL-TV poll that showed 76 percent of Utahns believe the GOP represents the view of a majority of Utahns. But when questioned on eight specific issues addressed by the Legislature at that time, the poll found the public disagreed with half of what the GOP-controlled Legislature did.

Freshman Sen. Patrice Arent, D-Cottonwood Heights, said she does not need public opinion polls to know how her constituents are feeling. She has knocked on countless doors throughout her southeast Salt Lake County district and talked with thousands of residents.

Her assessment is the polls are dead-on accurate, even if the issues are too complicated for simplistic poll questions. And she has been surprised at how well-informed the public is.

So why are GOP lawmakers seemingly disregarding public sentiment?

"Some groups are much better at organizing than others, and those views are not representative of the majority," she said.

Many GOP lawmakers dismiss those assessments, saying polls are not accurate or are biased by suggestive wording.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, says he pays no attention whatsoever to polls. And Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, says poll results would be vastly different if the public understood the details of the issues.

Buttars points to tuition tax credits as an example. If the public realized it would actually generate money for public schools and allow greater choice in education, the majority would support the idea, he said. Six Deseret News/KSL-TV polls over the past two years show a majority of Utahns oppose tuition tax credits.

Buttars said he pays no attention to polls himself, but he is irked by his colleagues who do, "voting to get re-elected instead of what they know they should vote for. I may be wrong in my votes, but you never wonder where I am at on an issue."

Actually, many constituents do wonder where lawmakers stand on issues, and why they voted the way they did, says Rep. Morgan Philpot, R-Sandy. "We have a real crisis in constituent communication," he says. "We have no personal staff. If you are not rich, and I'm not, you often don't have the resources to send out newsletters or other means of telling your constituents why you vote the way you do."

Checks and balances

Perhaps the Utah politician best at gauging public sentiment is Gov. Mike Leavitt, whose approval rating has been around 80 percent for most of his 10-year administration. But he says he does not rely on polling.

"I try to position myself in harmony with my own conscience," he said. "I have found during my 10 years of service that I have had success because people generally seem to resonate with the same things I do."

He did not want to address whether lawmakers are out of step with the public, noting, "There are times when I think I line up very, very well with the mainstream and there are times, I suppose, when I'm out there a little myself.

"I agree with the vast majority of bills they pass, and when I disagree, the system provides a check and balance to make sure the public interest is served," he said. "These checks are playing out this session, as they have in the past."

The bottom line is that Utah is not a democracy.

Dust off any old civics textbook and you'll find the Utah form of government, in fact the entire American system of government, calls on citizens to elect representatives and senators who then make laws on their behalf.

How they vote on Capitol Hill is up to them.

"It is important that legislators watch what is happening at home," Valentine said. "But with a representative form of government, the people have to rely on those they elect to represent them."