Analysis: Likely not much change in GOP legislative leadership for next term

Just two days after the Nov. 3 general election is another vote: Which, as far as the Utah Legislature is concerned, will be more important than how citizens vote next Tuesday. It’s the GOP leadership races in the state House and Senate. 

And no matter how citizens vote for their own individual representatives and senators, the leadership races will determine all kinds of issues over the next two years — not the least of which will be redistricting for the 75 House and 29 Senate districts come 2021.

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While the country may well pick a new president in a week, the change in Utah GOP legislative leaders appears more certain — likely not much change at all.

As of Monday, is told that the GOP House leadership team is likely to not change, staying the same: House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville; Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton; Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper; and Assistant Whip Val Peterson, R-Orem; will not be challenged.

Likewise, Senate Pres. Stuart Adams, R-Layton; Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City; Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem; and Assistant Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden, also have filed for leadership re-election with no one yet filing against them.

Perhaps no leader being challenged for another two years is partly due to the coronavirus outbreak — it is just tougher for those outside of leadership looking in to see an opening.

But it is a bit of a surprise, especially in the House.

As you may recall, there was a real internal kerfuffle among the GOP House majority caucus over tax reform last year and into January.

Gibson was co-chair of the Tax Reform Task Force and Schultz was a member of that group that recommended real changes to Utah’s tax code — including tax cuts for most Utahns, but an increase in the state food sales tax and gasoline tax.

While Senate Republicans also backed the effort, it was really led by House Republicans, especially Gibson.

GOP Gov. Gary Herbert took a political back seat in the tax reform effort. And Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, then a candidate to replace the retiring Herbert, even came out AGAINST putting the sales tax back on grocery store food. Cox is expected to easily win the governor’s race next Tuesday.

A citizen tax revolt arose after the Republicans passed tax reform in a December 2019 special session. And the first day of the 2020 January general session, the Republicans and Herbert reversed course and repealed the whole package — which would have provided overall the largest tax cuts in state history.

One may have wondered if House GOP leaders would have been challenged this November for their top posts because of the failed reform effort, which has already cost some incumbents their jobs in the June primary election/convention cycle.

But is told that as of this week there is no well-formed challenge to any of the leaders — although is also told that there have been some virtual meetings among some House Republicans over whether there should be a challenge to at least one or two House leaders.

Both the House and Senate Republicans, newly-elected on Nov. 3, will meet in-person and virtually on Thursday, Nov. 5, to hold the leadership elections. Ballots for in-person voting are secret, and for those who tune in virtually accommodations have been made to keep their votes secret, too.

And it is expected, is told, that all the current leaders will be picked again for their current posts.

Historically, the Speaker of the House has served two, two-year terms, or four years all together — then retired from the House. Although a few speakers have served longer.
Senate presidents have served much longer terms, a few upwards of a decade or more. But being a much smaller body, power is more spread out among GOP caucus members in the Senate, and caucus unity in the Senate is more easily-kept than in the larger House Republican caucus.

However, the current House GOP leadership team has been organized and united. For example, we are not seeing the speaker challenged by a member of his own team, as happened a decade ago. Nor have we seen an open speakership, with several members of the team challenging each other for the speakership slot, as happened recently, also.
Leadership in both the House and Senate will, in turn, name the chairs and vice chairs of all committees — as well as general committee membership — with the budget and rules committees being the top appointed posts, as always.

You usually see some surprises there, as when Wilson two years ago named a moderate Democrat as vice-chair of one of the budget subcommittees, a bipartisan move rarely seen in the Utah Legislature in recent times.

That Democrat, Rep. Susan Duckworth, D-Magna, is retiring this year, and so Wilson won’t be obligated to appoint her again to a top committee post.

It is still possible, one majority leader told, that a late-minute challenge to current leadership could arise. But historically challenges to leadership have arisen by now in an election year — and none seemed coming, the political newsletter was told.