Special legislative sessions are normally greased affairs. Republicans, who hold majorities in both houses, caucus, decide what they'll do, and then at reasonable pace, do it.
This week's session was different. It was held up for half a dozen hours by House Democrats. In truth, the Democrats pulled a filibuster: debating issues in an attempt to kill or modify them.But the tactic failed. They didn't change their main enemy--Gov. Norm Bangerter's tax rebate/reduction program.
The governor convinced Republican legislators that his was a good plan, and that he needed it, intact, to show voters he's indeed a fine leader. (Democrats are saying he's a weak leader)
So, if you can't change a bill through filibuster, why filibuster?
Democrats said they felt strongly about Bangerter's proposal to restore a third of the deduction for federal income tax to state tax returns. They say eliminating the whole deduction was part of a deal struck with Republicans in February 1987 that saw the sales tax increased by half a cent.
Eliminating the federal deduction clearly makes the income tax more progressive. With the deductions, Utah's wealthier citizens were paying a smaller percent of their income in state tax than less-well-to-do citizens. That's because the more money you make, the more federal tax you pay, and the greater your deduction on the state income tax.
Wealthier Utahns weren't paying less tax than poorer Utahns, but weren't carrying the same burden as compared to their less-fortunate counterparts.
Democrats have complained for years about how regressive the state income tax was, and they were pleased with the deduction's death.
They were rightly indignant that Bangerter and Republicans put part of the deduction back in the tax code. They claimed probably rightly so, that big-hitting Republicans were pressuring Bangerter and GOP legislators to restore the deduction because their state income taxes jumped through the roof last year.
The Democrats said a deal was broken.
They're right about that, When some Senate Republicans tried to restore the whole deduction in last January's general session, fellow GOP colleagues said it would be wrong to go back on the agreement.
Such division among Republicans ended in the special session, however, when Bangerter called on them to back him on returning a third of the deduction.
But there was something else going on here, also.
The Democrats are feeling their oats. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Wilson leads Bangerter by 23 points in the polls. Other polls show that many Utahns aren't very satisfied with the job the Legislature is doing and are willing to vote for someone new in the House and Senate races this year.
The Democrats wanted to show the Republicans they're a force to be dealt with.
For their part, the Republicans were going to teach the Democrats a lesson: Mess with us and we'll wait you out, we'll lock arms and you won't get anything.
Both messages were sent. both were understood.
The question still unanswered is whether the Democrats went too far in their House filibuster.
Will it force the Republicans into more united policies in the future, less likely to compromise? Should the Democrats win 11 seats in November's election and take control of the House next year, will the now-minority Republicans filibuster time and again to frustrate the Democrats?
Filibusters are used to force the majority party to change direction on specific legislation. Tuesday, Democrats failed in that goal. But they succeeded in changing the face of politics within the Legislature. Whether that was for the better or worse remains to be seen.