There's one really nice thing about the Legislature: When it's over, spring is here! It's like walking into a dark tunnel on a gray, cold, winter day, and when you emerge out the other side, 45 days later, the air is warm, the sky is blue, and birds are singing.
The Legislature always creates entertaining political dynamics. Here are some of our perspectives.
How will election-year politics impact the session?
Pignanelli: "In politics, what begins in fear usually ends in folly." — Coleridge. Anxiety and drama always increase in an election year, but they are off the charts in 2012. Many lawmakers are spooked by what happened to incumbents in the past 18 months. Sen. Bob Bennett was knocked off in the 2010 convention (by Republican delegates), while Rep. Jim Matheson was forced into a primary (by Democrat delegates).
In 2011, delegates in a special election did not give several incumbent House members the usual deference in appointment to a Senate seat. Furthermore, legislators must file for re-election immediately after the gavel closes the session and precinct caucuses are held shortly after that. Consequently, the focus is pleasing the delegates — who are in a grumpy mood. (Thus, we may want to give legislators some slack this year.) Members of both parties will strive to placate these unforgiving activists — especially the right wing. Speeches vilifying the federal government will reach such a crescendo that Utahns will wonder if reptilian extraterrestrial aliens have morphed into Washington, D.C., bureaucrats as part of an intergalactic plan to suck the life force from Americans.
Webb: Unlike the national scene, where an election year utterly paralyzes an already dysfunctional Congress and president, in Utah our Legislature does a great job of getting the stats work done, mostly in a bipartisan, responsible fashion. The budget will be balanced; the important bills passed; most crazy bills will be killed; and Utah will be well-managed.
Still, election-year jitters do play a role. Lawmakers with an eye on imminent caucuses and conventions are naturally cautious and careful to avoid issues (even the whiff of a tax increase) that would offend their electoral base, especially their delegates and political activists.
Interestingly, more Republican legislators are fearful of a challenge from within their own party, especially from the right, than from the Democrats. That tends to skew policymaking to the right.
For example, the repeal of HB116 probably wouldn't even be considered except that immigration is a hot-button issue with the far right, and GOP delegates have demanded the law be repealed. So, despite the fact that overwhelming majorities of Utahns support a compassionate, common-sense approach to immigration, repeal is a real possibility. In this case, and a few others, delegates have disproportionate influence, compared to citizens in general. Lawmakers must face those delegates and intra-party challengers in caucuses immediately following the legislative session. All of which is clear evidence that the caucus/convention system needs modest reform.
Who are the personalities to watch?
Pignanelli: Senate President Michael Waddoups is retiring, and so there will be interesting jockeying to replace him — especially between heavyweights Majority Leader Scott Jenkins and Majority Whip Wayne Niederhauser. Sens. Stephen Urquhart and Curt Bramble never disappoint in their energetic endeavors on the Hill. Politicos are having fun watching the tug-of-war between Sens. (and Salt Lake County mayoral hopefuls) Ross Romero and Ben McAdams and how the caucus responds to this rivalry between these two popular Democrats.
Speaker Becky Lockhart will use the session to repair any fallout from the bad hand she was dealt last year — especially redistricting. Her personal attention to lawmakers' needs will help them enter re-election campaigns in good standing.
Webb: Watch the guys running for higher office: Rep. Chris Herrod (U.S. Senate), Rep. Ken Sumsion (governor), Rep. Stephen Sandstrom (Congress). Watch Sen. Stuart Adams on transportation; Sens. Howard Stephenson, Stephen Urquhart and Aaron Osmond on education; and Reps. Ken Ivory, Brad Daw and Sen. Wayne Neiderhauser on federalism. New guy to watch: Sen. Todd Weiler.
Do the Democrats have a role?
Webb: Republicans have the luxury of being magnanimous to the small Democratic minority. Democrats are allowed to be seen on the floor, and even speak in soft voices.
Pignanelli: Democrats are pushing — in a nice public approach — the resources of a recovering economy toward education. While schools will eventually benefit from Gov. Gary Herbert's and Republican legislative actions, it is imperative the minority party maintain its traditional role as "hall monitors." Furthermore, Democrats will want to step up their comic responses to ridiculous or unconstitutional legislation — especially to counter Romney-mania in the fall.
How will the major issues (budget, education, etc.) be resolved?
Webb: With enough money for state growth, but little more, priorities and expectations for this session are quite modest. No grand visions or bold initiatives. Education, rightly, is the top priority. Both public education and higher education need more money, but they also need reform. A number of smart and thoughtful lawmakers have some excellent proposals. I hope they are successful. Utah is lagging in education reform. A number of states are doing bold and exciting things and Utah risks being left behind.
Nothing is more important to the future of our state than having a work force trained for the emerging job market. Doing things the same old way isn't good enough.
Pignanelli: There may be enough money to help with growth in education without raising taxes. Unfortunately, Medicaid continues to expand and lawmakers must pursue reform if they are to free up dollars in the future.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: email@example.com.