House, Senate GOP Pick Leaders for the Next Two Years

Utah Senate leadershipUtah House Speaker Greg Hughes won a second, two-year term as leader of the 75-member House of Representatives on Thursday night.

Hughes was unopposed in his race.

Likewise, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, (R-Sandy), was unopposed for his re-election to leadership.

Also unopposed in leadership re-election was House Majority Whip Francis Gibson, (R-Mapleton).

The battle – known for weeks – was over the second most powerful job in the House – Majority Leader.

The current GOP leader, Rep. Jim Dunnigan, (R-Taylorsville), announced in the closed, 60-member House GOP caucus that, partly because of his tough re-election to his House seat, he was withdrawing from the majority leader race.

UtahPolicy has reported previously that it was likely Dunnigan would lose his leadership post in any case.

With Dunnigan out of the race, Majority Assistant Whip Brad Wilson, (R-Kaysville), was unopposed for that leadership post.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, all of the current leaders (including Niederhauser) were re-elected to their positions.

The only contested race in the Senate was the fight for Assistant Majority Whip. Sen. Pete Knudson (R-Brigham City) kept his seat by beating back a challenge from Sen. Deidre Henderson (R-Spanish Fork) and Sen. Wayne Harper (R-Taylorsville).

Senate sources tell that Harper was eliminated in the race on the first ballot. Knudson then beat Henderson in the second round of voting. Many Capitol Hill observers expected Henderson to take that slot following Thursday’s vote, but it wasn’t in the cards for her. That means it will be more than a decade without a woman elected to Senate GOP leadership. The last was Sen. Bev Evans (R-Altamont) who retired in 2006. 

President Niederhauser said tonight’s vote was an expression of the desire for stability in the GOP caucus.

“The caucus has spoken for stability,” said Niederhauser. “There will be change at some point in the future, but we plan to take the same approach we’ve had over the last few years, taking the time to consider issues deliberatively, which leads to good policy.”

Niederhauser said none of the current members of leadership campaigned for any of the three candidates for the slot ultimately won by Knudson, deciding instead to let the caucus make their decision without an official endorsement from leaders.

Returning Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund (R-Monroe), who was unopposed in his race, praised the decision to keep the leadership team intact for the next two years.

“We’ve all been very close,” said Okerlund. “Tonight’s vote was an endorsement for continuing the voice of reason in our body.”

Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams (R-Layton) also retained his seat without a challenge from within the GOP caucus.

With Wilson leaving his assistant whip post to challenge Dunnigan, many leadership wannabees sought the assistant majority whip slot.

Those included Reps. John Knotwell (R-Herriman), Lowry Snow (R-Santa Clara), Jeremy Peterson (R-Ogden), and Steven Eliason (R-Sandy).

In the end, Knotwell was voted into elected leadership for the first time. In the four-person race for majority assistant whip Knotwell won on the first ballot, Hughes told UtahPolicy.

The four-person leadership teams in each the House and Senate will now meet and appoint the new chairs and vice chairs of the various standing committees (House and Senate), which hear bills during the general session; the Rules Committees (House and Senate), which sifts bills and assigns them to committees (or kills them by holding the bills); the various budget subcommittees (the House and Senate meet jointly), which vote on individual state departmental budgets; and the interim study committees (the House and Senate meet jointly), which study bills and issues from May through November each year.

Because of its relatively small size, every GOP senator chairs one or more committees; even freshman get a chairmanship.

The chairs and vice chairs of House committees, however, are sought after positions – with the elected majority leadership team making those appointments.

Chairs get prime office space in the Capitol itself and (in theory) control the agendas of their committees. (Sometimes, however, leadership may step in and order a committee chair to hear or not hear a specific bill).

The more senior House Republicans who support the winning speaker and other newly-elected members of leadership, traditionally get the prime committee chairmanships.

The top appointees are Rules Committee chair and budget chair for each the House and Senate.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard (R-Logan), has been the Senate budget chair for years – and it is assumed Niederhauser will reappoint him if he wants the job.

When Hughes was elected speaker two years ago, he appointed Rep. Dean Sanpei (R-Provo), as House budget chair, and Hughes said at the time he hoped Sanpei would be the House financial expert for more than two years so the House’s budget expertise could at least start to catch up to the Senate’s.

Hughes said Thursday night that he would appoint Sanpei House slot again.

Hughes said while he has not talked with the current House Rules Chair Mike Noel (R-Kanab), about being Rules chair again, if Noel wants it it is likely his.

“You are not going to see a lot of changes” in House committee chairs next year, added Hughes.

One prime appointment is open – Rep. Brad Dee (R-Washington Terrace), is the current House vice chair on the all-powerful Executive Appropriations Committee. Dee did not run for re-election this year and that spot is open. Hughes said his new leadership team would meet and talk about that job, and all others, later. 

The Senate will also decide on the remainder of the appointed leadership positions in the coming days. When asked if he plans to keep the appointed posts intact, Niederhauser deferred to the rest of his leadership team, saying they would make the decision collaboratively sometime in the next few days.

The list of Senate and House chairs and vice chairs – and the general committee assignments for Republicans and Democrats – should come out in a few weeks.

Knotwell, first elected in 2012, said he is humbled and excited by the confidence the new GOP caucus is giving him. “I look forward to working with these great men” in the new team.

Hughes said the caucus decided to go ahead with the leadership elections on Thursday – just two days after the general election – because the Senate Republicans were already doing it Thursday night.

Two years ago three House district elections – where Democrats were ahead Election Night – flipped two weeks later when all votes were counted in the canvass. Those three Republicans couldn’t vote in leadership elections.

“We need to do our (leadership) elections” on the same night as GOP senators because otherwise, geography might come into play, said Hughes. For example, if two or three members of Senate leadership were from Salt Lake County, rural House leadership candidates/caucus members might form a union in a later House election with the argument that Salt Lake County can’t rule both bodies.

Thursday night, Reps. Sophia DiCaro (R-West Valley); and Bruce Cutler (R-Murray), who were behind in votes Tuesday night, were not present, even though Hughes said he’s confident both could eventually win their races at canvass.

“We will talk to the Senate, and next election we should wait until after all votes are counted” before leadership elections are held, said Hughes.