Not much has been heard this session from the so-called "mainstream" GOP caucus in the Utah House.
But the moderate Republicans, mostly from districts along the Wasatch Front, have been meeting once or twice a week in a conference room off the new cubicle-like offices of representatives and senators on the fifth floor of the office building located behind the Capitol.Rep. Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, says the caucus has had an effect.
For teachers and schoolchil-dren, it could be a considerable effect. For the caucus - which usually has 20 to 30 members attending - pushed the whole House Republican caucus toward more public education spending. There are 55 Republicans in the 75-member House, so getting 30 of them to join on any issue is a majority of the Republicans and a healthy bloc in the whole House.
"We want 4 percent for the weighted pupil unit," Curtis said earlier this week. The WPU is the basic spending unit in the state-mandated Uniform School Fund. The 4 percent increase was the House GOP position in dealing with Senate Republicans, who were holding out for a 3 percent increase in the WPU, plus some extra cash for "hot spots" in all budgets, including public education.
After the all-powerful Executive Appropriations Committee finished setting the $6.1 billion 1998-99 budget Wednesday evening, the WPU increase was set at 3.5 percent.
That's not as high as the mainstream Republicans wanted but better than schools probably would have gotten if the mainstream caucus hadn't formed just before the 1998 session, hadn't taken the 4 percent stand and voted as a bloc on this issue in closed House GOP caucuses.
Curtis says the mainstream caucus also got some items on the approved funding lists for one-time and ongoing special projects. Each year lawmakers prioritize in their caucuses bills that cost money and one-time projects that can be funded and/or built with surplus cash. There are always more "money" bills and projects than lawmakers have cash for. So the bills are ranked through a non-formal voting procedure to avoid chaos in the final days of each session.
Conservatives in the House have caucused for years and voted as a bloc in that internal prioritization (where lawmakers cast votes for each project on the long list).
On the just-approved lists, Curtis can point to $900,000 out of the available $5 million in ongoing monies that the mainstream caucus got through. Out of one-time monies, the mainstream group got $450,000.
And the mainstream Republicans may still have a say in how much the state bonds for buildings and other capital improvements this year, Curtis noted.
But the caucus has not had impact in only money issues.
The tenor of the 1998 session is different. There are a number of conservatives who are carefully watching the electronic voting board in the House, seeing how the leaders of the mainstream group are voting.
And the House conservative caucus, which has rarely numbered 20, has been deferential in how it approaches some of its issues. The conservative rhetoric on the floor during debates has been less harsh this year, perhaps because some conservatives are looking over their shoulders, worrying that the mainstream group may oppose their funding or bills.
But the moderates have carefully stayed clear of taking caucus positions on bills.
"We don't take positions on individual bills. In fact, when legislators have spoken in the caucus meetings (held regularly Monday evenings) we specifically say we won't take any motions, no votes in the caucus on any bills," says Curtis.
That's because attempts at a moderate or mainstream caucus within the large Republican House delegation have failed in the past, and Curtis believes one reason was that members did end up fighting as a bloc over bills. As the old caucus, active for a time in the late 1980s, began alienating this or that GOP member by opposing his bill, the group began to fall apart, says Curtis, who was not in the Legislature at that time.
In any case, House GOP leaders are certainly listening to the new GOP caucus. House Speaker Mel Brown or one or two other leaders have attended every mainstream caucus meeting and are welcome, says Curtis.
In the House's fight with the Senate over education funding, House GOP leaders were vocal in defense of the 4 percent WPU, Curtis added.
Moderates in the House admit they were feeling their way this session. On the one hand they wanted to have an impact. "We feel we have," Curtis says.
But they also didn't want to make any major foul-ups, give conservatives in the House and Senate reason to criticize them or show them to be less-than-loyal Republicans.
After all, there are several conservative groups out there - specifically Don Ruzicka's Republican Assembly - that are watching Republicans in the Legislature this year. Those groups say they will oppose GOP legislative candidates, incumbents or not, who don't stand up to what the groups believe are true Republican Party principles.
So, members of the mainstream House GOP caucus end their first session with some things to crow about, a little experience under their belts and looking forward to the 1998 elections where they hope their numbers will only increase for the 1999 Legislature.