Bill regarding legislative representation stalls in the state legislature after robust debate
A bill that would have given San Juan County its own representative has stalled in the Utah State Legislature, but not without inspiring some robust conversation.
Representative Phil Lyman, of Blanding, is the author of house bill 230 in the Utah House of Representatives. The bill addresses state representative district boundaries ahead of the redistricting effort, which is scheduled to begin this year.
Lyman’s bill would require that when the Legislature draws Utah House of Representatives district boundaries, the Legislature shall “ensure that each county has at least one House district that is located entirely within the county.”
If passed, the result would be that San Juan County, along with the other 28 counties in the state, would have at least one designated representative. Currently, the state House of Representative districts are based solely on population.
Lyman outlined the details of his plan in the house political subdivisions committee meeting on February 18.
Currently, the top nine most populous counties in Utah have 68 representatives, compared to seven spread among the other 20 counties in the state.
The Lyman proposal would see the 20 least populated counties each have one representative and the remaining 55 representatives split amongst the top nine most populous counties in the state.
Lyman told the committee the idea is not about fairness but about good governance.
“Counties are subdivisions of the state,” Lyman says. “Every county has officers, a certain fixed amount of direction inside the county.
“So to divide numerous counties up between one representative is not really fair to the counties because they are a subdivision of the state and should have some representation based on that.”
Lyman also points in the United States House of Representatives, which divides representatives among approximately every 700,000 residents, stipulations exist that require that all states get at least one representative.
This is true even though states like Wyoming and Vermont have less than 700,000 residents.
The bill faces some serious challenges. In the committee meeting, Lyman acknowledged that if the bill passed, it would certainly lead to litigation.
It appears to be in opposition to landmark Supreme Court cases in the 1960s, including Reynolds v. Sims (1964), which rules that representation in state legislatures must be apportioned equally on the basis of population rather than geographical areas.
This is based on a principle of “one person, one vote.”
Additionally, a similar idea has been defeated previously by Utah voters. Utahns defeated an effort in 1954 to give every county one state senator.
In the committee hearing, the bill had opposition from the ACLU of Utah, and the League of Women Voters. They both cited the importance of representation based on population.
Republican Representative Paul Ray of Clearfield also spoke to the bill. Ray is the chairman of the redistricting committee, which will use the 2020 US Census to redraw district boundaries in the state.
Ray expressed concern about getting into a legal battle ahead of re-districting in 2021, adding that a long legal battle could even affect the timing for state elections. Ray did say he also appreciated the discussion.
“When we do redistricting,” said Ray. “We are going to be very careful and adamantly try to help out rural Utah to give them a stronger voice as we go forward.”
Lyman said the bill is not meant to be used for leverage for rural issues, saying he really would like to see the issue move forward.
“In terms of good government, I believe you need to have a geographic component,” said Lyman. “I know that argument has been made at the state level and lost, but certainly exists at the federal level and continues to exist, so there is precedent.”
Representatives in the committee also expressed appreciation for the discussion Lyman inspired but the committee ultimately voted to table the bill.