Officially, Wednesday marked the halfway point in Utah’s 45-day general legislative session.
So, is half the work done?
Not even close, say Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and House Speaker Greg Hughes.
“We haven’t hit high gear yet, but we will,” said Hughes, R-Draper.
“The things that will cause me to bemoan or to have joy have yet to happen,” said Niederhauser, R-Sandy.
On Monday state and legislative economists will give lawmakers updated revenue estimates for the rest of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and – more importantly – tax and fee collection estimates for fiscal 2016-2017, the new balanced budget that by law legislators must adopted before the session ends March 10.
And leaders worry that state agencies and public advocates don’t realize just how dour the state’s financial situation is – compared to all of the hopes/program spending out there.
“The budget is our big worry right now,” Hughes told UtahPolicy Wednesday morning.
He ticks off a long list of what GOP Gary Herbert and program advocates money believe could be coming – but likely won’t be.
In fact, Hughes guesses now that there will be LESS money to spend after Monday’s revenue updates than the public and legislative leaders anticipated last December.
“I hope I’m wrong, I hope for a surprise” in the numbers, he said.
Niederhauser says he also expects revenue numbers to be down when they’re made public next week, but he says there is no reason to panic. But, lower numbers could cause some problems if lawmakers try to move money around.
“If we decide to re-prioritize and try to get more money to education, that could be a problem,” said Niederhauser. “I don’t think revenues are going to be down that much. It’s not going to be devastating.”
Niederhauser and Hughes said the big decisions are yet to come – like the budget, Medicaid expansion, and a host of hot-button issues, like legalizing medical marijuana.
“Most of what we do in the first half of the session is those interim bills,” said Niederhauser. “We’re now just getting through those and getting to bills coming out of committee.”
Gov. Gary Herbert during his weekly media availability joked that the session has been a quiet one.
“It’s been a quiet session with very little controversy,” he teased. “I know you (members of the media) sit around and think what you can do to generate controversy.”
House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, has yet to introduce his smaller, less expensive Medicaid expansion for Utah’s poorer citizens.
Should there be an uproar over Dunnigan’s bill – with all the full expansion or Healthy Utah advocates condemning House Republicans’ more modest effort – then what is the political or financial incentive to take away funding from other real budget needs to pay for Dunnigan’s bill?
If there isn’t some consensus, some support, for the House Republicans’ Medicaid expansion – only naysayers, complainers, and political threats – then the political dynamic in the House and Senate GOP caucuses could change – and not to the benefit of those who want to do at least something on Medicaid expansion before adjournment, UtahPolicy is told.
Gov. Herbert says he’d rather have his Healthy Utah plan approved, but if lawmakers can do something, it’s better than nothing.
“We want to do something to help the most vulnerable among us,” says Herbert.
Herbert thinks lawmakers will approve a plan to help about a third of the 63,000 Utahns who fall into the so-called coverage gap.
“Helping a third of them would be a step in the right direction.”
There is a tendency each session, said Hughes, for the larger membership House “to circle” for a while before a lot of the major work begins.
But he sees less of that the first half of this session.
“Our committees are doing their work – I’m seeing a number of bills” coming to the House floor “that have amendments or substitutes. They are being vetted.”
One change this year: Historically, GOP House leaders did not allow individual bills to be discussed at the open Tuesday and Thursday caucus meetings. Issues, yes, and especially budgets were reviewed. But bill debates – if that is the proper word – were left to committees and floor action.
But Dunnigan – who runs the House GOP caucus – has been having Republican representatives speak on their bills in the caucus.
Dunnigan said Tuesday leaders believed it was a wise use of time so questions on controversial bills can be addressed “off the floor” and thus save valuable floor debate.
As of Tuesday, 1,252 bill files have been opened – a record high; 648 bills and resolutions have been numbered and introduced.
Only 65 bills have passed both the House and Senate and sent to Herbert.
Herbert says there aren’t any bills on his radar right now that he thinks are headed toward a possible veto.
“It’s always the surprise bill that causes concern for me,” he said. “This year the legislature is doing a good job of sorting out bills and prioritizing.”
With less than a couple of dozen days left in the session, Herbert says it’s night and day compared to last year’s session.
“We had a tumultuous time with Healthy Utah. This seems like a calmer session with everyone willing to work together. It won’t be as wild and woolly as last year.”