Well, the 45-day, 2016 Utah Legislature is less than three weeks away, and while no one is probably totally ready for this 7 ½ week budget-setting, law-making gush of politicking (including your intrepid UtahPolicy reporters), there will be several changes in the first few weeks of this session in an attempt to get more bills heard in House and Senate standing committees.
The same time will be spent in the joint budget committees, says House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper.
But, hopefully, time should be better spent in standing committees, where bills are heard, debated and voted on, he adds.
Several reasons for that, one being consistent – despite leaders’ moaning – increases in the number of bills requested by the 104 part-time legislators.
Hughes says the Office of Legislative Research and General Council tells him there are more bill requests at this time pre-session than ever before.
So unless many lawmakers change their minds and drop bills, more bills will get less of a hearing and more bills will become law without what some lawmakers say is the proper consideration.
In recent years, legislative leaders acting as the Executive Appropriations Committee, have asked the budget subcommittees to cut their current budgets by 2 percent.
The idea was that such a process – while painful for some members of the public and state agencies go to through – would be a good fire-test of current spending.
But, in reality, special interest groups and agency heads just screamed bloody murder, at mid-session the committee members would just add that 2 percent back in.
And in most cases, state programs and agencies ended up with a bit more cash in their new budgets than years before.
It was a lot of political pain for legislators without much result.
Now, says, Hughes, leaders are telling budget committees no 2 percent cut off the top at the start of this session.
But if you want some extra spending for this or that program you like, feel is very valuable and needs enhancements, you will have to find the money within your current budget.
Yes, there is more than $500 million in “new” money coming in the session – from tax surpluses from this year and last and new growth in tax revenues.
But a lot of that cash will be eaten up by various programs growth – new public school and college students, at least $39 million in additional Medicaid expenses (and this is WITHOUT Medicaid expansion under Obamacare) and such.
Standing committees are going to be asked to take some heat – kill and/or hold some bills.
Republicans hold super-majorities in both the House and Senate. And it’s tough to keep a party colleague’s bill in your standing committee, for he or she may be sitting on a standing committee where you are trying to get a bill out.
For Republicans, the you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours is a regular process.
The minority Democrats’ bills suffer under tighter standing committee operations.
But, in reality, it’s Democrats’ bills that may well die on the House and Senate floors, as well. So why spend the time on them in committee in the first place – a hard political truth.
Hughes says leaders are asking their respective body’s Rules Committees to be tougher in sifting – holding more bills so that they don’t even make it to a public standing committee hearing.
But GOP leaders owe their positions to their respective caucuses – and anger enough of your caucus members by holding their bills in Rules and you may not be in leadership again.
“I think our interim committees did great work” over the summer and fall, said Hughes.
And interim committee chairs have a good feel for what issues/bills may have enough support for passage this session, the speaker adds.
Accordingly, standing committee chairs, co-chairs and the GOP majorities in each committee will be expected to sift out bills that have little real chance of passage, or emotional bills that may draw public interest or ire, but likewise aren’t likely to make the governor’s desk.
“The case is that we’re going to have more bills (introduced) than we have time to hear and vote on,” says Hughes.
Something has to give.
And it will be up to the House and Senate Rules Committees and standing committees to make some hard decisions.
Or that is the plan, at least.
Previous attempts by legislative leaders to cut down on the number of bills being filed, or have their Rules Committees and standing committees kill or hold more bills have, in general, failed.
“I think we’re well prepared as we go into session,” said Hughes. But we’ll see how it all plays out over the next three months.