The 2018 Utah Legislature starts Monday at 10 a.m. in the State Capitol.
Get ready for 45 days of political fun, tinged with some real weirdness.
The 104 part-time lawmakers must adopt a balanced budget by midnightMarch 8 – the end of the general session.
They have more than $500 million – half a billion dollars – of new cash to allocate, nearly $400 million in ongoing tax revenue growth.
That’s a lot of new greenbacks.
But Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, Senate budget chair, recently told a pre-legislative conference that when you add up growth in the number of public school kids, infrastructure needs, Rainy Day mandatory allocations, state worker pay raises, and such, the 2018 Legislature actually starts the session $21 million in the red.
There never seems to be enough money for government.
House and Senate GOP leaders – Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper; and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy – have put state tax reform tops on their agenda.
But what that will look like remains unclear.
Lawmakers enter the session still not sure what the major federal tax overhaul means to state revenues.
Some say it could bring in an extra $75 million to $150 million yearly.
But Niederhauser, a CPA/developer, disagrees, saying the federal government’s actions could be a wash for state tax collections.
More to come on that – but figuring out exactly what state revenues will be starting the new fiscal year, July 1, will be a challenge.
Hughes and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert both say changing how the Utah Transit Authority is run may be a big political battle this session.
Hughes favors adopting a three-member, full-time commission to run the much-in-debt mass transit operation.
The commissioners would not be elected. Rather local governments and other entities would make suggestions to the governor, who would appoint the three transit bosses, with approval by the Senate.
There could be six citizen initiative petitions on November’s ballot.
That would be the highest number in modern times.
And all could see some kind of interceding (political game-playing) actions by lawmakers this session.
Our Schools Now, an attempt to raise the personal income and state sales taxes slightly to bring in more than $700 million to public K-12 schools annually.
Some conservative GOP lawmakers are already talking about giving the local 41 school districts more leeway in either raising or equalizing taxes, which could bring in over $700 million over 10 years.
But could even those changes be enough to derail OSN?
Legalizing medical marijuana for specific treatments and pain relief.
Some lawmakers may want to take further steps toward that goal this session. Would that mitigate the petition?
And how will opposition to medical marijuana legalization play out with the LDS Church, which is against it?
Count My Vote. An altered version of the 2014 effort is back this year. Die-hard, rightwing Republicans are against it. Herbert threatens a veto if the compromise law, SB54, is gutted in this session.
Keep My Voice. A petition just the opposite of Count My Vote’s – doing away with the signature route for candidates and having only the caucus/delegate/convention process.
Could GOP lawmakers, looking to shore up their delegate-based support, try something odd like putting that petition directly on the ballot (as lawmakers can), and thus save the KMV folks the bother of gathering 113,000 voter signatures?
Independent, bipartisan redistricting commission. This could be a sleeper issue, popular with voters UtahPolicy.com polling shows. Even GOP rank-and-file voters favor letting a commission draw U.S. House and legislative district boundaries, which would stop gerrymandering by Republicans in the Legislature.
Medicaid expansion. UtahPolicy broke the story two weeks ago that Hughes and other GOP leaders are looking at accepting the Obamacare-like expansion if certain guarantees/waivers can come from the Trump administration.
Will we see a Herbert-advocated Healthy Utah 3.0?
Lawmakers could make an attempt to sideline one or all of the above petitions by taking some kind of actions on those issues.
ELECTION YEAR POLITICING
This is an election year for all 75 House seats and 15 out of 29 Senate seats.
That means re-election politics will be in play.
Will lawmakers want to mess with the state’s tax system – which almost always seems to pick winners and losers – in an election year?
The Legislature will remain in Republican hands no matter the November outcome – Utah is a very red state.
But with Democratic waves predicted in 2018 across the country with the very unpopular Donald Trump in the presidency, could Democrats pick up seats in the Legislature?
Finally, Hughes has announced he won’t run for his Draper seat again (looking towards the 2020 governor’s race?)
That means there will be a new speaker elected right after the November ballot by the House GOP caucus.
Niederhauser is running again this year. But he hasn’t said if he’ll run for president again.
So we could have new GOP leaders in the 2019 Legislature.
UtahPolicy Managing Editor Bryan Schott will be in the Senate again this year while contributing editor Bob Bernick will be in the House – nearly 60 years of combined legislative reporting coming your way.