Utah House GOP leaders, saying an "experiment" with a more accommodating House Rules Committee has failed, are going back to a more controlling, partisan route to the handling of hundreds of proposed bills this general session.
While some may see the change instigated Monday as back-room baseball, others say it means a more partisan, controlled operation of the 75-member House. And through extension, even how Senate bills will also be handled the larger body.
"The Rules Committee was being used for politically partisan purposes" by Democrats, House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, said. "And I said that is coming to an end."
But the two Democratic members of Rules, Reps. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake, and Neal Hendrickson, D-West Valley there are six Republicans on the committee, reflecting the makeup of the full House both say they believed the old operation of Rules was working, and that now they don't even see what the purpose of Rules will be.
Rep. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, changed the way Rules operated when he was named its chairman by Curtis several years ago. Saying he wanted a more open and participatory operation, he let each of the Rules members put on each meeting's agenda a certain number of bills, with that member suggesting which standing committee the bill would be heard in.
After debating and voting on those lists in an open meeting, that final list would go to the speaker, who would read in the bills and their committee assignments.
Now, said Urquhart, he alone will draw up the Rules agenda. And the bills he picks won't be assigned to a standing committee. When Curtis reads in that list which may still be changed by a majority vote in Rules the speaker will assign the standing committees. Urquhart said Curtis will likely take his suggestions on which committee will hear which bill.
It is critical to a bill's success that it be sent out of Rules for a hearing. If Rules holds a bill, it is dead unless an extraordinary motion is made from the House floor to lift it a move that is rarely done. All bills must have a public hearing unless both the House and Senate vote to suspend that basic rule, which is also a rare event.
"I'm against the change," said Hendrickson, a conservative Democrat who gets along well with GOP leadership. Not having a say in where the bills will be heard "takes away one of the main tasks of Rules, sifting of bills," he said. "We have no input in that now."
But several Republicans on Rules said that Biskupski, one of the three openly gay members of the Legislature, has continually been pushing Democratic-sponsored bills in Rules that could prove embarrassing to some Republicans in this election year, including several anti-discrimination bills dealing with nontraditional relationships.
"Jackie has been doing her job, doing it well looking out for (Democratic-sponsored) bills," said House Minority Whip Dave Litvack, D-Salt Lake.
One Republican on Rules said he preferred the old way Rules was run by Urquhart. Even though some Democratic bills probably would have to be killed in a Rules public vote, "it gave everyone on Rules a chance to put a bill on the agenda we all had a say. Now Rules will be totally partisan. And that is OK, understandable, but unfortunate it has to be that way."
Any Rules committee members can still raise their hand, and if recognized by Urquhart, can make a motion to add or remove any bill from the list. However, sometimes motions are made and voted on before other committee members can make a motion. If a controversial bill were already on the list, a motion must be made to take it off.
And even if a controversial bill makes it on the final Rules list, Curtis and Urquhart can send it to a standing committee where it may likely be killed.For example, several years ago, Rules sent that session's controversial public school voucher bill to the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Standing Committee instead of the Education Committee the logical choice for the hearing because GOP leaders knew the Education Committee would kill the bill and that Natural Resource Committee members would vote it out for a full vote on the House floor.