More and more, Utah lawmakers are introducing "pork" bills in the Legislature as a means to get around the normal budget-setting process.
In the 1998 session there were 39 bills that did nothing but spend money on this or that pet project, legislative leaders were told Wednesday.To bring "integrity" back to the budget process, Republican and
Democratic leaders voted to put an end to the end runs.
But they did so only after Democrats said that in some cases introducing a bill, and getting a public hearing before a standing committee, is the only way members of the minority party can highlight a specific problem they believe the majority Republicans are ignoring.
The current problem brings to light a larger concern, says House Majority Whip Kevin Garn, R-Layton. In the current process of lining up "money bills" that appropriate money for pet projects - and passing them outside of the budget subcommittee review process - "we're just putting one pork project against someone else's pork project" to see which one gets the most votes. And in that process, vital state needs aren't measured up against the pork bills, says Garn.
But by forcing all money-spending bills back into the budget-hearing procedure - back into the budget subcommittees and out of the bill-hearing committees - then a new golf course, or an addition to a museum or a park road in some lawmaker's district can be weighed against education spending or correction needs.
"Something is not right" in the Legislature's budget-setting priorities, said House Assistant Whip Judy Buffmire, D-Salt Lake. "We pass pork bills - bills that really are nothing, while some meaningful (legislation or spending priorities) don't make it."
Senate President Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful, and House Speaker Mel Brown, R-Union, are pushing the change in tactics. Both said Wednesday during a meeting of the Legislative Management Committee - a bipartisan group that runs the operations of the Legislature - that streetwise legislators have learned to short-circuit the normal budget-setting procedure.
Beattie pointed to the last Friday before the Legislature adjourned in early March. That was the day leaders demanded that all major budget decisions - including spending in specific pet project bills - be decided. That Friday, lawmakers worked from 8 a.m. until midnight - a long and frustrating day.
"And what were we doing?" asked Beattie. They were whittling down each money bill to fit the $10 million that House and Senate members decided would be spent next fiscal year on special projects, answered Brown.
Worse, said the speaker, the public was misled in the whole process.
He gave as an example a bill introduced by Rep. Gerry Adair, R-Roy. The bill, as introduced and passed by a House standing committee, would have allocated millions of dollars for 80 new Highway Patrol troopers.
When the bill passed the committee, headlines in the next day's newspapers touted the spending. But everyone knew there wasn't enough money for 80 new troopers.
And late that Friday night, Adair's bill was amended to fund only 10 new troopers. The public's expectations were raised and "that wasn't fair," said Brown.
After Wednesday's meeting, Richard Strong, head of the Legislature's research and general counsel office, admitted that legally leaders probably couldn't stop any legislator from introducing any bill. Like the constitutional right of freedom of speech, there is no limit to the number or kind of bills a lawmaker may sponsor.
But in reality, if leaders decide - and they're backed up by the caucuses - that a money bill won't be introduced, it will do a stubborn lawmaker little good to introduce a bill that, for example, appropriates $1 million for a new golf course. The bill will just be held in the rules committees of the House and Senate and never see the light of day.
Brown and Beattie suggest that the so-called money bills be prioritized in the House and Senate Republican and Democratic caucuses and the agreed-upon amounts of spending just be included in the huge budget bills that are passed the final weeks of each session.
"That is how it used to be" handled, said Brown.
But House Minority Leader Dave Jones, D-Salt Lake, said at least the public attends standing committee hearings where bills are discussed. Few citizens attend the party caucuses (and Republicans sometimes close their caucuses) that are held at least twice a week during the session. It's in these caucuses where the prioritizations are set.
And Senate Assistant Majority Whip Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, pointed out that when a pork bill comes up for a vote in the House or Senate, members may just vote it down - even though it has been prioritized by this or that caucus.
That is exactly what the House did this past session to two Senate money bills.
It is less likely that lawmakers would, on the floor and in the rush to finish pressing budget business, reach into a 500-page budget bill and try to remove one line that appropriates $1 million for a golf course in some lawmaker's district.