The vestigial backbone of Utah's legislative Democrats may be starting to re-appear.
The ruckus they caused last week in the House over Medicaid reform was so out of character for this bunch that it caught many off guard. They were able to insert themselves forcefully into a battle that had seen them sidelined up to that point.
To recap: Rep. Justin Miller, D-Salt Lake City, tried to lift SB164, the Healthy Utah bill, from the House committee that killed it. While that procedural move was beaten back, it put House Republicans on the spot, forcing them to vote, in a way, on Healthy Utah.
Later, Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, tried to replace HB446, also known as Utah Cares, with Healthy Utah during floor debate. That effort was also beaten down by Republicans. Again, they forced a vote of sorts on Healthy Utah.
That could not have been comfortable for Republicans. The latest UtahPolicy.com poll shows a majority of Utahns want Healthy Utah while just 20% say they favor the House plan.
The majority party was outraged! They immediately enacted retribution, changing the rules to make such a procedural move more difficult in the future.
For a brief moment, it was glorious pandemonium in the Legislature. It's not unprecedented, however. Democrats used to pull this sort of thing at least once per session in years gone by.
But in recent years, Utah's minority party has been content to fight for small things. They are important issues, but they're still "small."
Think hard. Until the Medicare kerfuffle, what was the signature issue for the Democrats this session? It was the whole "don't rape me while I sleep" dustup. It's an important matter, for sure. But, in the grand scheme of things, it's a no-brainer.
Democrats have been background players in the other large discussions on the Hill. It's been that way for some time now. It would be almost inconceivable that the minority party would attempt such shenanigans under previous leaders.
Democrats had developed a "go along to get along" mentality. Don't make waves and get your legislation passed and funded. The atmosphere in the caucus had been described to me as "living in occupied territory." Cause a problem and your bills go "bye bye." The hard truth nobody on that side of the aisle will acknowledge is no Democratic bills pass unless the majority Republicans want them to pass. It doesn't matter how hard they fight.
They were an afterthought. Maybe that's why their numbers have been declining precipitously over the years.
But last week looked to be the first stirrings from that legislative slumber. Democrats forced themselves into the conversation. For a brief moment, they were an actual opposition party.
That feeling of fighting back was intoxicating. One minority legislator tells me they toyed with legislation to change the entire legislature's healthcare to the Primary Care Network – the same system House Republicans are pushing as an alternative to Healthy Utah. However, they thought better of it because the caucus was already on thin ice with the Republicans after the Healthy Utah stunt.
I have no idea what would happen if Democrats were able to open up a third front on the legislative battleground. For years, the two party system in Utah was conservative Republicans vs. moderate Republicans. Democrats were nothing more than a fringe third party. I don't think Republicans would know how to react either. Democrats willingly folded on the big issues, content to work behind the scenes and not stir up trouble.
Could we be on the verge of a renaissance for the Democrats? Maybe, but it would be very easy for Republicans to crush any uprising. If this is the route they choose, they'll have to navigate it very carefully and pick their spots.
Sure, there are only 12 of them in the House. Their numbers are even smaller in the Senate. But, they demonstrated if they are determined to make life difficult for the majority Republicans, even briefly, they can do it.