House Committee Assignments Include Some Surprises

Newly-elected Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and his leadership team have announced the House committee assignments for the 2015-2016 Legislature, and among the chairs and vice chairs one name is surprisingly missing.

Veteran Rep. Mel Brown, R-Kamas, the current House budget chairman, will not be a chair nor vice chair when lawmakers convene Jan. 26.

Brown ran for speaker against Hughes, the former majority whip, and Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, in the speaker’s race last month.

Hughes blew away both Dee and Brown in the House caucus voting, with Brown only getting four votes before the count was stopped when Hughes, R-Draper, reached a majority.

Dee has been put into the most important vice chairmanship – House vice chair on Executive Appropriations, which has the final budget say.

Simply put, Hughes told UtahPolicy, his elected leadership team offered Brown the chairmanship of the House Health and Human Services Standing Committee. But Brown declined, said Hughes.

Brown told UtahPolicy that he wished to stay on as House budget chair, but when that wasn’t going to happen he would have liked the Natural Resources standing committee chair.

Brown has been a fixture in the 75-member Utah House for decades.

“I’m the senior member” of the 75-member House. “And I thought that seniority counted for something. I did decline” the chairmanship of House Health and Human Services.

“I have zero interest in chairing that committee,” said Brown.

Brown was picked by outgoing Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, to be the House budget chair – an important appointed member of leadership – for the past four years.

Brown was speaker himself for several terms back in the 1990s. He first entered the House in 1986. He retired from the House in 2000, but returned to represent a different district in 2006.

Brown has a wealth of knowledge, but has gotten crossways with several speakers over the years.

Hughes said it was nothing personal with Brown; a statement Brown agreed with.

Hughes said unlike other speakers – Hughes has been a part of elected leadership under two speakers, Lockhart and former speaker David Clark – he decided early on that he would extensively consult his new elected leadership team in picking new chairs, vice chairs and committee members.

Those other leaders are incoming Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville; Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton; and Assistant Whip Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville.

“We met a lot,” said Hughes. One meeting at Hughes’ home lasted from 5 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., another from 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., said Hughes.

“We were texting each other like mad, always trying” to match up more senior members of the House Republican caucus “to their strengths and their leadership assets.”

Brown was clearly not going to be House budget chair again, he was a Lockhart ally and worked hard behind the scenes when she defeated Clark by one vote for speaker four years ago.

But senior House members – who have been committee chairs or vice chairs before – usually do get a committee chair or vice chair under a new speaker. You can view the new House committee assignments here.

Hughes said he wanted Brown for chair of Health and Human Services because in the 2015 Legislature it will be one of the most important committees. “A real hot spot.”

That is where GOP Gov. Gary Herbert’s Healthy Utah bill will go, and it’s expected that the chair of that committee (it is now Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield) will have to work closely with leadership and the House GOP caucus to change Healthy Utah into a program that can get support from a majority of House Republicans.

But Brown said he chaired that committee way back during his first stint in the House, and “have no interest in doing that again.” He said he had an interest, besides saying on as being budget chair, of serving on the House’s revenue and taxation or public education committees, but didn’t get those assignments.

Hughes said his new elected leadership team decided that no current chairs and vice chairs would lose those titles in the new Legislature – although some of those senior folks were asked to be a chair or vice chair of a committee new to them.

Because of retirements or current chairs and vice chairs being elected to leadership, there were only six new chairmanships slots available.

The new team “talked a lot, long and hard, about where we needed new chairs and vice chairs, where members’ strengths could best be used.”

Some current chairs and vice chairs, asked to take those positions on new committees, were at first skeptical, said Hughes. But after explanations on why Hughes’ team thought the change for the best of the House, they agreed.

However, when Brown turned down the Human Service Standing Committee chairmanship, that bumped him out of other chair or vice chair possibilities, said Hughes.

Brown will be a regular member of the Health and Human Services Standing Committee, the Natural Resources Standing Committee, and the Social Services joint budget committee.

He said: “I believed that as the most senior member of the House, that should count for something. But with a lot of these young guys, apparently it doesn’t, since they don’t have any seniority.”

Added Hughes: “After a lot of work, we are confident we have put together the strongest committee assignments in some time, taking into account each (Republican’s) preferences for their assignments.”

(Democrats get to make their own members’ committee assignments.)

“I’ve been around a while,” said Brown. “And I know how to get things done” in the legislative process. “I don’t need to be a committee chair” at this stage in his career. “It’s all going to be fine.”

As previously reported by UtahPolicy, Hughes and his team broke with precedent and appointed an incoming freshman to the all-powerful Rules Committee.

Mike Schultz will be the first freshman on Rules in recent memory. Hughes described him as “a person who I believe will be a star” in the House.

The final vote count canvas in three state House races, where a Democratic won on Election Day, flipped, and House Democrats ended up winning only 12 seats – their lowest number in decades.

That fueled speculation that Democrats would get only one seat on Rules, whose make-up — like other standing and budget committees — reflect the partisan make-up of the whole House.

But Hughes’ team was generous to the lowly Democrats.

While 12 Democrats are only 16 percent of the 75-member House, Democrats will get two seats on the eight-member House Rules, a 25 percent membership.

Democrats on Rules are Rep. Brad King, D-Price, who is returning to the House, and Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay.

If there is a political fight on Rules – usually over whose bills get to come out for standing committee hearings or, toward the end of the session, which bills get moved to the floor calendars for a pass/fail vote — Republicans close ranks and vote in a bloc

So it really doesn’t matter that Democrats’ percentage on Rules membership is higher than their numbers in the whole House.

Still, it is a nice gesture by the House GOP majority.

GOP leaders could have played hardball and reduced the total number on Rules and given Democrats only one seat.

If that Democrat had to miss any of the 45-day general session – Rules usually meets at least once a day – then Democrats wouldn’t have any votes on the important committee.

Finally, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, has been picked as House parliamentarian – in floor debate he will be called on by the speaker to give advice on whether a motion is in or out of order, whether an amendment is properly placed and so on.

Brown, in past sessions, has at times also served as House parliamentarian.

Hughes told UtahPolicy he’s putting final touches on who will be his top House political staff and – like putting a freshman on Rules – there will be some interesting, and groundbreaking, decisions there, as well.