The last days of the Utah Legislature usually see a rather odd political contest.
For lack of better terminology, let’s call it “playing bill chicken” – a legislative adaption of the childhood game of climbing on your bicycles and riding toward each other to see who swerves out of the way first.
The 2012 Legislature is no different – the game is now on.
By midnight tonight the 45-day general sessions ends, whether legislators, lobbyists or the public are ready or not.
Wednesday, GOP senators and House members were playing chicken with several measures (while working on compromises), seeing who will blink first – or who will swerve out of the way and take a loss as adjournment races towards them.
In theory, the game is simple – one house holds some bills the other house wants in order to get some its items approved, and vice versa.
This year, senators were holding (as of Wednesday afternoon) at least two measures the House wants: HB173, a $150 million road building/bonding bill, and HB272, a health insurance pilot program for autistic children ages 2-to-6 that could help 800 children and their families.
As the final hours tick away, other bills may fall into the chicken-game pot.
While always the negotiators in the chicken contest, this year House and Senate GOP leaders have personal stakes in the game.
The road bond, HB173, is sponsored by House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace.
The autistic child insurance bill is sponsored by House Majority Assistant Whip Ronda Rudd Menlove, R-Garland.
Both SB62 and SB258 are sponsored by Senate budget chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan.
Hillyard has been the Senate leader in opposing Dee’s road bond bill.
Do you see a pattern here?
An expert at intra-legislative rules and politics, House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, smiled when asked by UtahPolicy about the late-session chicken bill game taking place Wednesday.
“This is the legislative process,” she said. “And remember, this is a bicameral Legislature – there are two houses here” – hinting that at times senators may believe there is more to the term “upper body” than just terminology.
And with a knowing look, Lockhart asked rhetorically “how can we hold SB62 and SB258,” when in fact all fiscal notes bills are held until ranked for funding by the sponsoring body.
Hillyard’s “are fiscal note bills – they cost money – and the Senate hasn’t yet sent the House the money bills it wants” funded and passed, she said.
(The autism bill also costs money. And, of course, the road bill costs $150 million.)
Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, Wednesday afternoon was deep in negotiations with House GOP leaders over the road bond bill.
“We’re only going to bond for $100 million. That’s it,” Jenkins told UtahPolicy. He said Senate Republicans were willing to give House Republicans 90 percent of what they want in HB173. “Are they (GOP House leaders) lose the whole bond over what’s left” in disagreements?
And so goes the back-and-forth of the chicken bill game as the hours drift away.
There are some general rules – call them gentlemen’s agreements – to the latter-day chicken contest.
-- You can complain to the media (and others) about how stubborn/intransient the other house is being. But you (hopefully) aren’t so nasty that you burn personal bridges, and thus harm your overall cause.
-- You try to get the governor on your side, asking him to intervene with the other body and tell them to get with it and pass the sponsoring body’s bill.
-- If you can’t get the governor on your side -- Gov. Gary Herbert, up for election this year, has taken a hands-off attitude toward several of the bills now in the chicken contest – you try to pretend you do have his support (and hope the other side doesn’t ask the governor what he really thinks).
-- As you enter the latter-days of the session, you try to herd bills into the chicken game that are not either real non-starters (the other house isn’t going to vote for it no matter what) or that are so critical to state government that their failure really hurts the citizenry.
In short, you have to be ready to give up on your chicken bill for a real trade in the other body.
-- You stay away from highly emotional and/or ideological bills. The last thing you want is for one side or the other facing hundreds of screaming Utahns in the Capitol rotunda the final two days of the session.
Such unhappiness, dutifully reported by the media, leaves a bad taste in the citizenry’s mouths; which also is not a good thing in an election year.
-- You keep some tax money aside for the chicken bills. (All four of this year’s “chicken” bills carry fiscal notes.)
Bad budget-setting planning could end up with both houses finally agreeing on a chicken bill(s), only to find that there’s no money to pay for them.
You’d then have to re-open settled budgets and take some funds away from a previously approved program.
-- Keep compromise possible. If you are arguing over a bond bill, for example HB173, you can always reduce the bond and build fewer roads. Both sides have to swallow hard, one side agrees to build some roads, the other side doesn’t get all the roads it wants.
On the other side, if you are trying to slow or hinder a new initiative, like an autistic child health insurance program, you can delay its implementation a year or reduce the number of kids that are covered.
-- Remember there’s an end game.
When the clock strikes midnight the final day, you don’t want to still be calling the other house a bunch of boobs who left this or that section of Utahns in a bad spot.
You want to be hugging and smiling and telling the media that, once again, the Legislature has listened to the citizens, acted wisely, and left no greatly-needed areas of state government wanting.
-- And finally, don’t gloat.
If your body comes out ahead in the chicken game, be magnanimous.
Next year brings another general session, another latter-day game of chicken, and you don’t want long memories to harm your near-adjournment bargaining positions next time your peddling toward the opposing house.