The 1991 Legislature, which starts Monday, faces no major crises - there are no tax increases suggested, no tax decreases planned, few new programs, no cuts in government spending.
With no large controversies pending, some wonder if idle hands will prove the devil's workshop."Will this be a session of Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?" asks Gov. Norm Bangerter's chief of staff, Bud Scruggs. "It could go either way. They (legislators) could come in, take care of business in a timely and responsible manner, conduct good government. Or they could get distracted on a number of emotional issues and things could get out of control, the state's business could be harmed. When the stakes are small, politics tend to be vicious. We'll just see what happens."
Different officials have varying opinions on which issues will be hot during the 45-day session, which ends Feb. 27 at midnight.
Their top priorities show where their concerns lie. But abortion is making everyone's "worry list."
Scruggs says it is the great unknown of the session. "Will they (legislators) try to swallow the whole loaf - which will choke the U.S. Supreme Court (into overturning it), or will they go for half a loaf, the next logical slice, something the Supreme Court could uphold - something like restricting abortions after the first trimester?"
House Speaker-elect Craig Moody - who as GOP majority leader last year was the fulcrum point in the brief but emotional abortion debate - is glad to see the Abortion Task Force's bill starting in the Senate, out of his worry, at least at the beginning of the session. (Last year, with Bangerter working behind the scenes, House conservatives who had filed tough abortion bills were convinced to wait a year to see if the Supreme Court would more clearly define how states can restrict abortions. The high court didn't, and now it's more likely some bill will be debated).
Senate President Arnold Christensen, R-Sandy, mentions abortion almost as an aside. "We'll deal with it if it comes up," he says. But, Christensen admits, the GOP-dominated Senate will likely pass some restrictive abortion measure, "if the members can't see that it would be better to join the lawsuits of other states who have already passed (restrictive abortion) bills. Personally, I don't want to see another cable TV thing - fighting the battle ourselves." (Former Utah Attorney General David Wilkinson spent about $700,000 in the mid-1980s in an unsuccessful defense of the Cable TV Decency Act.)
House Minority Leader Frank Pignanelli, D-Salt Lake, believes Democrats will ask Attorney General Paul Van Dam for some kind of formal opinion on the Task Force's bill - which outlaws abortions except in the case of rape or incest, if promptly reported, or to save the life of the mother.
"If the opinion says it's unconstitutional, I think (the bill) will fail," says Pignanelli. "If we can't get an opinion (out of Van Dam), it (the bill) will fly through." The only way to stop such a bill, which some believe will cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend through the federal court system, is if lawmakers can be convinced that it's more prudent to join other states' lawsuits instead of Utah carrying the court battle itself, leaders said.
Other issues that will grab center stage:
-Property taxes and the AMAX court decision must be addressed. Moody and Christensen, who as GOP leaders must put together a balanced 1991-92 budget, list this at the top of their concerns.
The Utah Supreme Court released a decision last year that says AMAX Corp.'s property taxes must be recalculated because the state-assessed entity wasn't fairly treated. While the decision only applies to AMAX, other multi-county businesses - like utilities, mines and railroads - are lining up to sue the state.
At risk is $55 million in property taxes, about $30 million of which is built into Bangerter's public education budget for 1991-92. Thus, AMAX must be addressed or the budget may not be balanced. Bangerter, in his budget recommendation, says lawmakers should look at all options in an effort to keep the $55 million from being shifted to locally-assessed properties - local businesses and homes. That could mean new taxes for the multicounty businesses - either a pollution tax, higher severance taxes or a gross receipts tax.
"Few people understand what the AMAX case is all about," says Moody. "Most of the legislators don't understand it," agrees Pignanelli. "It is totally boring and confusing. But if property taxpayers see their taxes go up by 7 percent as some are talking, they'll listen up real quick."
-Democrats in the House and Senate will have their own, minority agenda. They want to rework income taxes, giving a tax break to a family of four making 65,000 a year or less, while raising taxes on those making $65,000 a year or more. They want to require a tougher curriculum in public schools, take away the driver licenses of teenagers who drop out of high school and require more parental involvement in their children's education. They'll put forward new environmental legislation and suggest that some sales tax exemptions given specific businesses over the years be repealed.
Pignanelli says in the past the minority Democrats have mostly reacted to the majority Republicans' programs. "This year we have our own and will push them."
Says Scruggs: "The Democrats are about to declare a class warfare strategy, see how the rich vs. the poor will play politically. There's no telling where that will lead this session."
-There may be a competing income tax proposal to the Democratic plan. Several years ago, House Republicans suggested - and the whole House passed - an innovative flat-rate state income tax that eliminated all tax deductions except home mortgage interest payments. Some House Republicans say they may reintroduce that issue this year. At the time, the Senate wasn't too hot on the proposal. And it died quickly in the Senate after leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints questioned whether charitable deductions should be eliminated from income tax law. Church leaders didn't fear for contributions to their church, but worried that tax-deductible contributions to other charities, such as the United Way and the arts, may suffer.
-Education governance will be discussed. Bangerter and others believe the State School Board - empowered by the state constitution to oversee public education - could be better organized. One proposal is to require school board candidates to be approved by a screening committee before running for election. Another is to change the constitution to have the board appointed by the governor, confirmed by the Senate, as is the case with the Board of Regents which oversees the state's colleges and universities.
-Finally, Bangerter and legislative leaders agree that legislative campaign and ethics reform will be discussed. None can predict what will happen. "Things are calm, no scandals," says Scruggs. "In such calm, isn't it a good time to clean up your own house?"
"We believe there must be some kind of (legislator) conflict of interest disclosure," says Pignanelli. Moody will support, as he has for years, an effort to make legislative candidates and legislators more fully disclose their campaign finances. Others will introduce bills requiring lobbyists to disclose how much they spend on legislators and terms of limitation for legislators and other elected officials.
Lawmakers won't discuss reapportionment of legislative and Congressional districts this session. Required demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau on the 1990 Census won't be available until the spring. Bangerter will call a special session either this summer or fall for lawmakers to take up the partisan battle of redrawing the boundaries for the 1992 elections.