Legislators Moving Toward More Transparent Process at the End of the Session

Some “breaking news” this Monday as the Legislature rushes to finish its 2015 general session by Thursday at midnight.

What follows is some insider baseball, but hopefully this is what UtahPolicy is supposed to be telling you.

For the first time in recent history, House and Senate GOP bosses are not going to “wipe the board” until Thursday – the last day of the session.

For old-timers who know Utah legislative process, usually the final week of the session the 3rd Reading Calendars are wiped clean and the majority party leaders, via their separate Rules Committees in the House and Senate, reprioritize the final reading calendars – and thus get final votes for passage or defeat.

In the Senate, the House bills that leaders want (they do take into consideration each representative’s priorities) are put up for floor votes, and in the House the same thing happens, the Senate leaders send over lists of Senate bills that they want the House to vote on.

Some bills, like the individual budget bills, are “must pass” items. The Legislature is going to adopt a budget for the next fiscal year – that is lawmakers’ top priority.

Other bills may pass or fail in the other body as the votes fall – although GOP leaders in both bodies do have sway in how the other body considers their list of important legislation.

And, of course, the governor has a part to play in all of this as well – he has a list of budget items he really, really wants, and maybe a few bills as well.

But the traditional “wiping” timing process is not being followed this year.

Only on Thursday – the final day of action – will leaders’ priority bills be considered (if they haven’t passed already).

Tuesday and Wednesday, leaders will allow the normal flow of bills, which have gone on the 3rd Reading Calendars in the normal flow of work as the bills are passed in one house and then move over to the other house.

Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber, who has been an advocate over recent years for a more open and transparent process in the final week of the session, told UtahPolicy that this year’s change is a good thing.

With only one day – Thursday – for “games” to be played by GOP leaders – bills popping up at the last minute, or substitutes coming in that are major changes to the original bill that had had a public hearing, and so on.

In another matter, in a unanimous vote in a special meeting of the House Rules Committee, HR6 was passed Monday afternoon.

HR6 comes because of anger House Republicans endured last Thursday night – when the small Democratic minority (there are only 12 Democrats out of 75 House members) got a vote to lift GOP Gov. Gary Herbert’s Healthy Utah Medicaid expansion from a standing committee.

With HR6 it will take a two-thirds vote to lift such a bill.

HR6 also says a representative can’t uncircle someone else’s bill – thus brining it up for a vote on the House floor.

House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said he’s been asked at least six times this session by a representative who wanted to uncircle someone else’s bill.

That is odd, but it could be, said Dunnigan, that someone wanted to debate someone else’s bill when the sponsor is off the floor, and get it killed without the sponsor even being present. “So we probably want to stop that,” said Dunnigan.

The two-thirds change is most important of the two items, since it is aimed at stopping Democrats from doing what they did Thursday night.

But as Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, who sits on Rules, told UtahPolicy after the meeting, “this could backfire” on the majority Republicans.

For in some unique cases GOP House leaders may want to lift a bill from a recalcitrant standing committee and not be able to get two-thirds majority from the floor to do it.

Today, Democrats don’t hold one-third of the membership, but they have in the recent past had more than one-third of the members (25) – and so could stop a majority two-thirds vote.

“They could really be harming themselves, I think,” said Spackman Moss.

Finally, UtahPolicy was told Monday that GOP House leaders have decided to spend some cash (they have hundreds of thousands in excess funds in their accounts for these kinds of things) to expand the current majority caucus room located just off the House Chamber floor.

When the Utah Capitol was remodeled several years ago, a new majority caucus room was constructed that holds around 65 people (the fire marshal says).

Since then the GOP majority has grown and grown over the last several elections – now at 63 members, a record.

Unfortunately, the House GOP caucus room is now very crowded, with little room for members to eat while a small number of the public (mostly media) attend.

So, the House kitchen will be torn out, the majority caucus room expanded to the east, and the kitchen rebuilt in what is now the private meeting room next to the House Lounge, known as the Toltan room – named after the first House speaker who served when the state Capitol was first constructed and opened in the early 1900s.

Maybe a new refrigerator in the rebuilt House kitchen can be named after Toltan.

In any case, come the 2016 Legislature the House majority caucus room will be larger, so important House caucuses, open to the public, which is appreciated (the Senate holds closed caucuses) can better accommodate more visitors.