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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

What Constituents Want - Part One

By Greg Bell
Utah State Senator, District 22

Every elected official is asked whether he will "represent his constituents" or pursue his own agenda.

Most legislative issues are very complex; the public cannot, nor do they want to, consume the voluminous information, pro and con, relevant to an issue, nor can they hear the many stakeholders who have conflicting views on a piece of legislation. Public opinion doesn't respond to fast-moving changes in bills and budgets, or to the changes and compromises inherent in the legislative process.

It’s also very difficult for an elected official to determine what her constituents want. I can’t do Gallup polls. Legislators see some polling data in the major media; but these tend to be statewide information. One rarely finds information specific to Centerville or Kaysville, for example.

Moreover, the electorate doesn’t speak with one distinct voice. A Utah Senate district contains nearly 100,000 people: soccer moms, businesspeople, educators, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, constitutionalists, members of the Sierra Club, students, actors, laborers, retired people, entrepreneurs, union members, military, rich, poor, Catholic, LDS, Evangelical, religiously unaffiliated, educators, public employees, hunters and fishermen, animal rights advocates, life-long residents, and brand-new Utahns. There are numerous opinions among that group of 100,000.

Assuming we were able to get the public’s opinion on every issue, how much guidance should a legislator take from a 60%/40% split? How much from 29% "Strongly favor" and 19% "Somewhat Favor", etc. There are many issues where even members of the same party cannot agree.

The time-honored way to hear from one’s constituents is through an election campaign. To a victorious candidate who emerges from a political campaign (through a party convention to a primary election to a general election), discussing political issues with the electorate is about the best of all gauges of the will and desire of the people.

So how should a legislator represent her constituents’ interests? My answer to this question is:
1) Listen carefully,

2) Apply the public policy principles I believe my constituents hold dear, and

3) Identify and act on my constituents’ priorities -- consistent with my conscience

Clearly, knowing the will of one’s constituency is pretty subjective business. In the 2006 General Session I heard more than once,
"My constituents want a tax cut", versus, "My constituents don’t want a tax cut, they want more funding for public education."

OR

"My constituents are demanding ethics reform", versus "No constituent has ever mentioned a concern about legislators receiving gifts."
I think I might hear the same kind of thing in 2007.

Amidst the hundreds of issues out there, here's what I am hearing from the good people in Davis County: Public Education and Transportation are THE issues.

I'll try to write a little bit about what my constituents seem to want on both of those issues in the next few days.

4 Comments:

Blogger Voice of Utah said...

Okay, so voters are too dumb to know what we want. (Gosh, why are we even allowed to vote, silly geese that we are?) How would that explain the legislature's refusal to respond to known constituent desires on issues that aren't inherently over our heads? For example, when the D-News says 65% of Utahns want a ban on guns in schools, where's the ambiguity? (Sorry to sound grouchy, but this post really did seem a bit patronizing.)

1/03/2007 9:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Senator Bell:
Thank you for your insightful thoughts on our representative form of government. I do not like polls and question the wisdom of relying on them for everything as some, especially the media does today. It has always been my contention that in a republic we elect intellegent, thoughtful people who share our values and who will actively participate in gathering all the facts, discussing them and making an informed decision in our behalf. If we really beleived we could just poll our constituents and vote as the polls demand, we could simply do it by computers. We would not need elected officials to deliberate and vote their consciences. Congratulatioins, you have described our republic. In an pure democracy, rejected by the founding fathers, the majority would always prevail and the minority would never be heard. I think that is what a king or dictator does. I like what we do in America.
Tom Bingham, Utah Manufacturers Association

1/04/2007 2:51 PM  
Anonymous JBR said...

Senator Bell- you are one of the few Republican Senators that makes sense. Your caliber is ten times that of other legislators... have you ever considered bid for higher office? I think you could trounce Bishop in the next congressional election. I know many Democrats (myself included) who would be more then happy to work for you. Think about it.

1/04/2007 5:09 PM  
Anonymous JimPhillips said...

Nice comments. Lessening the influences of ALL special interest groups would be nice and a good first step too.

1/04/2007 8:14 PM  

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