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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: The Legislature is at work, and it's an election year

Published: Sunday, Jan. 29 2012 12:46 a.m. MST

Utah State Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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There's one really nice thing about the Legislature: When it's over, spring is here! It's like walking into a dark tunnel on a gray, cold, winter day, and when you emerge out the other side, 45 days later, the air is warm, the sky is blue, and birds are singing.

The Legislature always creates entertaining political dynamics. Here are some of our perspectives.

How will election-year politics impact the session?

Pignanelli: "In politics, what begins in fear usually ends in folly." — Coleridge. Anxiety and drama always increase in an election year, but they are off the charts in 2012. Many lawmakers are spooked by what happened to incumbents in the past 18 months. Sen. Bob Bennett was knocked off in the 2010 convention (by Republican delegates), while Rep. Jim Matheson was forced into a primary (by Democrat delegates).

In 2011, delegates in a special election did not give several incumbent House members the usual deference in appointment to a Senate seat. Furthermore, legislators must file for re-election immediately after the gavel closes the session and precinct caucuses are held shortly after that. Consequently, the focus is pleasing the delegates — who are in a grumpy mood. (Thus, we may want to give legislators some slack this year.) Members of both parties will strive to placate these unforgiving activists — especially the right wing. Speeches vilifying the federal government will reach such a crescendo that Utahns will wonder if reptilian extraterrestrial aliens have morphed into Washington, D.C., bureaucrats as part of an intergalactic plan to suck the life force from Americans.

Webb: Unlike the national scene, where an election year utterly paralyzes an already dysfunctional Congress and president, in Utah our Legislature does a great job of getting the stats work done, mostly in a bipartisan, responsible fashion. The budget will be balanced; the important bills passed; most crazy bills will be killed; and Utah will be well-managed.

Still, election-year jitters do play a role. Lawmakers with an eye on imminent caucuses and conventions are naturally cautious and careful to avoid issues (even the whiff of a tax increase) that would offend their electoral base, especially their delegates and political activists.

Interestingly, more Republican legislators are fearful of a challenge from within their own party, especially from the right, than from the Democrats. That tends to skew policymaking to the right.

For example, the repeal of HB116 probably wouldn't even be considered except that immigration is a hot-button issue with the far right, and GOP delegates have demanded the law be repealed. So, despite the fact that overwhelming majorities of Utahns support a compassionate, common-sense approach to immigration, repeal is a real possibility. In this case, and a few others, delegates have disproportionate influence, compared to citizens in general. Lawmakers must face those delegates and intra-party challengers in caucuses immediately following the legislative session. All of which is clear evidence that the caucus/convention system needs modest reform.

Who are the personalities to watch?

Pignanelli: Senate President Michael Waddoups is retiring, and so there will be interesting jockeying to replace him — especially between heavyweights Majority Leader Scott Jenkins and Majority Whip Wayne Niederhauser. Sens. Stephen Urquhart and Curt Bramble never disappoint in their energetic endeavors on the Hill. Politicos are having fun watching the tug-of-war between Sens. (and Salt Lake County mayoral hopefuls) Ross Romero and Ben McAdams and how the caucus responds to this rivalry between these two popular Democrats.

Speaker Becky Lockhart will use the session to repair any fallout from the bad hand she was dealt last year — especially redistricting. Her personal attention to lawmakers' needs will help them enter re-election campaigns in good standing.

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