A Bill To Provide Rural Utahns More Representation Would Break Federal Law
Around three-quarters of Utah’s state House of Representatives are from the Wasatch Front.
Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, said that leads to policy and funding choices that benefit urban Utahns over rural Utahns, and he only sees the problem getting worse.
“Their growth is unrestrained,” he said. “And it’s starting to look more and more like this Hunger Games scenario, because all the decisions are being made in Salt Lake, for Salt Lake [and] about Salt Lake.”
To address this, Lyman filed a bill to create at least one house district for every county in Utah. His bill would give rural residents more representation in the state Legislature. But it would also violate a 1964 Supreme Court decision that found the “one man, one vote” principle applies to state legislative districts. That means each district needs to be about equal in population.
Lyman, whose district covers seven southern Utah counties, admits that his bill runs afoul of federal legal precedent. But he points to earlier versions of Utah’s constitution to argue this was the intention of the men who founded the state.
Utah’s constitution originally granted every county at least one representative in the state House. But the 1964 Reynolds v. Sims Supreme Court decision made it impractical to grant a representative to every county while still considering population, because it would have made the chamber too big.
Lyman also argues that the current state Legislature does not give Utahns a truly “Republican form of government” as promised in the U.S. Constitution, because both chambers are elected based on population.
“A true bicameral legislature, with one chamber elected by population and another chamber elected with at least an element of geography, provides the tension between the two chambers needed to effect good policy and protect the entire state against special interests,” Lyman said.
Congress is an example of bicameralism, since U.S. senate seats are tied to states, not population. But comparing Congress to the state Legislature doesn’t make sense, according to Brigham Young University political scientist Adam Brown.
“At the national-state level there is a federal relationship where each [state] has some independent powers of its own,” he said. “But there’s no federalism in the state of Utah, because counties are subdivisions of the state, not separately constituted units.”
Brown said efforts to institute this type of bicameralism at the state level by tying representation in the state Senate to counties, rather than population, have failed throughout Utah’s history. He said a proposition to give each county exactly one state senator was voted down at the state constitutional convention in 1895. And an effort to give each county one senator was defeated in a statewide vote in 1954 — although most rural areas voted to support it.
Brown added that if Lyman’s bill passes, the new law would be struck down immediately.
“It wouldn't even go to the Supreme Court,” he said. “It would go to federal district court, they would cite Reynolds v. Sims and say ‘You’re done.’”
Still, there’s support for Lyman’s bill among rural legislators and county commissioners.
Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, said he “absolutely supports” the bill. Garfield County commissioner Leland Pollock also supports it, even though he doesn’t expect it to pass.
“I applaud Rep. Lyman’s efforts,” he said. “If nothing else, I think he’s bringing attention to the imbalance we have in rural Utah.”
Pollock said rural county commissioners often lobby state legislators who don’t represent their districts in order to gain support for rural issues.
“We’re under-represented at the Legislature,” he said. “We have one representative who shares seven counties and one senator who shares eight counties. That’s why we have to be so active up there.”
And while Lyman’s bill has an uphill climb in the Legislature, it was assigned to the House political subdivisions committee last week. It does not have a hearing date yet.