Special sessions of the Utah Legislature normally are one-day events, designed to clear up technical matters or resolve pressing problems not handled in the regular 45-day gathering in January-February. But despite a brief agenda - only four items - the session that opens Wednesday could last at least two days.
On the calendar are an $85 million bonding package; some technical adjustments relating to a new abortion law; an upcoming auto salvage law that must be delayed to repair flaws in the bill; and action to clear up a tangle in Tooele County over the Utah Transit Authority's taxing powers.The latter two items are relatively minor matters that could be taken care of quickly. The bonding bill also should not prove to be a stumbling block, although two previous bonding versions had large differences.
The two measures could not be reconciled in the final minutes of the regular session, leaving the state with no bonding package at all. The compromise $85 million approach represents an "agreement in principle" but will have to be cleared in Republican caucuses on opening day.
The emotional issue, of course, is the state's tough new abortion law being challenged in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union. It has brought threats of boycott by the National Organization for Women and efforts to undermine Utah's bid for the 1998 Winter Olympics.
Both the ACLU and NOW are "demanding" that the law be repealed, but that is not going to happen, although there may be attempts to make some basic amendments in the legislation. Those probably are doomed to failure as well.
What lawmakers undoubtedly will do is amend a 1983 homicide statute to clearly and unequivocally declare that a woman who gets an illegal abortion or a doctor who performs the operation cannot be prosecuted for murder.
The possibility of such prosecution is technically present under current law, although state officials say such a thing would never happen and even critics from the ACLU have conceded that fact. Yet even while making that admission, opponents have not shrunk from exaggerating the point and raising a national hue and cry.
Other proposed changes would include all male relatives under the incest provision, add osteopaths to the medical doctor definition, and spell out that violations must be "willful and reckless." None of these are major changes and are not expected to cause problems.
Some attempts to directly attack the abortion law itself could be made but such efforts stand little chance of success. If nothing else, lawmakers are not about to reverse themselves in the face of emotional demands and threats.
The probability of a two-day session comes because legislators - particularly the heavy GOP majority - want to spend the first day in party caucuses, making sure that everyone is in agreement and on board and that subsequent events will follow a carefully prescribed course. That applies to the bonding issue as well as the abortion measure.
Utah's abortion law can be expected to emerge basically unchanged from the special session. From that point, it will be a legal matter, not a political one, although the heated rhetoric and actions of opponents probably will not subside soon.
In the meantime, the new abortion law will not be enforced, pending the legal struggle that is expected to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The emotionalism of so-called pro-choice groups is not even sparing the high court. NOW officials visiting Utah over the weekend even called for demonstrations against Supreme Court justices, saying "Don't you dare" overturn the existing Roe vs. Wade decision that allows abortions.
Having embarked on their strict approach to abortion law, Utah legislators must stay with what they have begun and let the legal issues be decided by the courts, rather than cave in to threats and intimidation.