With so many big issues, so little time, and so many politicos — all concentrated in such a small area — a legislative session is always a boiling cauldron (some would say cesspool) of rumor and conjecture.
That makes the Capitol a fun place to hang out if you're into Utah political gossip — whether true or not. (Pignanelli tries to be in the middle of every conversation, while Webb would rather be in Panguitch.) We offer a few of the juicy morsels lawmakers, lobbyists, journalists and hangers-on are masticating this February.
The Attorney General. While it is proper to withhold judgment regarding Attorney General John Swallow until the federal investigation has concluded, that doesn't prevent Swallow from suffering death by a thousand paper cuts. Whispered conversations range all across the spectrum.
Some suggest that a federal indictment is unlikely due to lack of evidence. If Swallow can hang on through the turmoil, he may be acquitted and retain his job. Others argue that he should be forced to resign because he used bad judgment, even if indictments are not handed down. Legal experts note that not many options exist to force a resignation.
But where the Capitol buzz really gets intense is speculation over who might replace Swallow if he does step down. The Republican Central Committee would submit three names to the governor. Because citizens will demand an immediate restoration of integrity and competence to the office of the state's top prosecutor, two individuals are always mentioned in such conversations: Lieutenant Gov. Greg Bell and State Sen. John Valentine (neither is maneuvering for the position). Both of these officeholders are respected for their intelligence, legal acumen and ethical conduct. Others mentioned are Hinckley Institute of Politics Director Kirk Jowers (who led an ethics commission) and Swallow's Republican primary opponent Sean Reyes.
Such talk leads to additional speculation, such as who would replace Bell. A long list of incumbent legislators would await a call, but we also hear a few surprise names, such as Salt Lake County Council member Michael Jensen, and Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love. (And then, of course, who would replace them? … speculation could go on forever.)
The Autism Bill. In the 2012 session, House Republican leaders fended off legislation to mandate insurance coverage of autistic children by establishing a pilot program funded by insurance companies. It was expected that no further autism legislation would be filed in the near future. So insiders predicted an early death in the conservative Senate when an autism bill on insurance coverage was filed this year.
Autism Speaks is a well-organized coalition that clearly understands the emotional impact of their cause — every LDS Ward or other neighborhood group, large employer and other organizations have a beloved family with an autistic child. The coalition is also armed with veteran lobbyists Sue Koehn and David Copeland. But, Autism Speaks now boasts a secret weapon. Some Diet Cokes in the legislative break rooms have been on Capitol Hill longer than freshman Sen. Brian Shiozawa — sponsor of the autism legislation. Known as a nice guy but new to the process, politicos calculated he and his autism bill could be easily defeated.
But the autism bill flew out of committee, shocking business and insurance lobbyists. It quickly became apparent that Shiozawa — an emergency room physician and former president of the Utah Medical Association — is a good political tactician. Observers are now commenting the good doctor possesses a gracious and kind manner, but a gritty determination that will serve him and the state well.
Water Issues. Utah is famous for controversial liquor laws, but nothing creates political maelstroms like fights over water rights. Utah homeowners, businesses and agricultural interests receive water allocations through myriad companies, districts and other obscure entities. Thus only a few individuals (referred to as "water buffalos") truly understand the nuances. Massive legislation (that your columnists cannot comprehend) is being debated with ferocity. The outcome will impact all Utahns.
Sequestration. As lawmakers piece together the state budget, they are edgy because of the real possibility that federal funds may dwindle after the session concludes. The state is depending on $500 million that could be at risk in current federal budget negotiations. Without the federal money, Utah's budget surplus quickly becomes a budget deficit.
The problem is short-term and long-term. Utah lawmakers are wise to plan for the day when federal leaders finally get realistic about out-of-control debt and the federal money spigot dries to a trickle. A package of bills will be debated to prepare the state. It's likely that Utah's action will draw national attention and will be replicated in other states.
Fuel Tax. The possibility of a local-option fuel tax is getting some buzz at the Capitol. Lawmakers aren't inclined to raise taxes, but they recognize that the state fuel tax has lost a great deal of purchasing power. Utah's roads and highways are deteriorating, and giving local governments a way to raise highway user fees could be part of the solution.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant, lobbyist and part of the Utah Mobility Coalition. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: email@example.com.