After a personal meeting Thursday between Utah House Speaker Greg Curtis and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., Curtis said he's unsure whether he'll pursue a bill this session that according to Huntsman shifts budgetary powers in favor of the Legislature.
And Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said while the policy decision of how to handle a gubernatorial veto of a major budget bill is an important one, it doesn't have to be done this year.
"We don't know how to read this," Huntsman legislative aide Mike Mower told a Thursday morning House committee hearing on Curtis' HB97.
Comparing the new governor with new leadership in the House and Senate, Mower said Huntsman feels like one partner in a newly married couple who is "served with papers for divorce or separation." From the governor's side, he said, "we're still in love."
Saying he values the good relationship he has with Huntsman, who took office the first of the year, Curtis invited him over to his office at noon. After the brief meeting, which both sides said was private, Curtis was asked if he still plans to go forward with HB97.
"I don't know. (Huntsman) sees this as a winner or a loser, and it's unfortunate that it's seen that way," said Curtis, R-Sandy. The speaker said he would talk with other members of House and Senate Republican leadership to see what they want to do.
The issue blew up earlier this week when HB97 was made public as a whole slew of new bills were filed for the 45-day session, which ends March 2.
Curtis said he'd been thinking about the issue for nearly a year since former Gov. Olene Walker threatened the 2004 Legislature with vetoing the whole budget if she didn't get $30 million for her public school reading program. She got the money.
Curtis still believes something needs to be done to stop such heavy-handed actions by governors in the future, adding, however, that HB97 is not aimed at Huntsman.
The core of HB97: If the governor vetoes all the budget bills, or just one budget bill, then current spending in that area continues and there don't have to be any compromises between the two branches of government.
Mower said he accepts Curtis' statements and doesn't see HB97 as a way for GOP leaders to force Huntsman this session to give up his demand that less money be spent on roads, more on employee pay raises and other state programs.
Still, feelings have been running high for several days. And Curtis told the House Business and Labor Committee Thursday morning that, in hindsight, he probably should have pre-filed the bill and talked about it publicly previously.
Maybe then, he said, the news media wouldn't have tried to "drive a wedge" between legislators and Huntsman over the issue. In fact, the media were roundly criticized for their reporting of the subject by committee Republicans before members voted along party lines the three Democrats on the committee voting no to advance HB97 to House floor debate.
After the committee vote, Huntsman chief of staff Jason Chaffetz told the Associated Press that "We're were very surprised (GOP lawmakers) are going to slam this through. I don't think the public understands or wants this dramatic power shift to happen."
At the committee hearing, Mower wondered out loud why, so early in a new administration, there would be a rush to change the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of government.
HB97 would have not only "a profound impact" on this Legislature but into the future as well, Mower said. It seems the bill is "greased to go," he added.
In the committee, and later at a noon House GOP caucus, Republican after Republican said objections to the bill were overplayed, unrealistic.
"It just makes sense," said Rep. Dave Cox, R-Lehi, to have what are known as continuing resolutions keeping the current year's spending into next fiscal year if the Legislature and governor can't agree on a budget. Otherwise, Curtis said, state government would have to shut down completely.
Valentine said later: "We've talked in terms of long-term policy, and that the long-term policy ought to be that we don't have the government in a crisis where there's no money."
That's especially important, he said, because the Legislature only meets part time and cannot call itself back into session.
But others say what may seem like a small change to some the heart of Curtis' bill is only a couple of lines in the real political world the budget battle between the branches of government could shift permanently.
"It would be a major, major change," providing the Legislature with a real political club in setting budgets, House Minority Leader Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake, said earlier this week.
"It's a slippery slope," Mower said Thursday, which could lead to years of continuing resolutions, "and a stagnant budget" that's not allowed to provide more spending.
But, said Rep. Gordon Snow, R-Roosevelt, didn't Huntsman run a campaign promising change?
"Yes, change within the exiting framework," Mower responded. He added that throughout the campaign, even in meetings with GOP legislative leadership before and after he took office, not once did anyone talk about this approach."This could have been vetted early on" in discussions between legislative leaders and the governor, Mower said after the committee's vote. "What if you had an intransigent Legislature that refused to do anything. You could never have a budget" compromise that would adequately fund state programs, he added.