The 2003 Legislature may well go down in history as the one where lawmakers tried to eat the elephant in one bite . . . only to decide to think about what was on their plate for a while.
During their 45-day session, deeply divided legislators wrangled with more weighty issues than they could ultimately swallow, from tuition tax credits to hate crimes. In the end they put off making many hard decisions, relegating them to further study.
Two of the toughest decisions — the bank/credit union fight and what to do with radioactive and hazardous wastes — will be put off until 2005, when a rookie crop of lawmakers will join the Legislature.
"I don't think the Legislature is guilty of putting off difficult issues by studying them," said Rep. David Ure, R-Kamas. "But I do think we're guilty of not using our interim study time effectively."
It is anybody's guess how they will use their "study" time when they meet every third Wednesday of the month until the 2004 general session. But they will have another full plate.
Lawmakers have agreed to study 218 issues during interim committee meetings, everything from whether lobbyists should be required to wear ID badges to insurance for acupuncturists. Among the issues scheduled for debate are three dozen bills that could not muster enough votes to pass the 2003 session.
Add to the list four new legislative task forces: One to study gravel pits, another to look at strategic planning for transportation needs, another to look at public education reforms and another to look at Utah policy toward radioactive and hazardous wastes.
Rep. Jeff Alexander, R-Provo, saw his bill to tax the largest nonprofit credit unions in the state resigned to the study heap after spending the entire session getting beat up and vilified — and wrangling with 14 different versions of the bill.
Alexander, speaking with a hoarse voice strained from debate on the issue, said he understands why it was sent to a two-year study.
"Of course, from a personal viewpoint, I wish we'd made the decision," said Alexander. "But an in-depth study of banks and credit unions hasn't taken place for 20 years."
Will two more years of study, public testimony and political posturing really solve the nasty dispute that has become an annual ritual on Capitol Hill?
"There's the likelihood that in two years we'll be right back where we started — the banks and credit unions not reaching agreement," Alexander said. "And it could be in two years we do nothing."
Negotiate or litigate?
Sending a controversial issue off for further study rather than voting on it is certainly no guarantee lawmakers will find resolution. In 2002, the governor and lawmakers reached a compromise that set up a task force to find alternate ways to fund water development other than property taxes.
The task force reached no consensus, agreeing to disagree. No water funding bills were even proposed to the 2003 Legislature.
The most contentious of the upcoming study issues will undoubtedly be the two-year waste task force, which promises to study waste policy from top to bottom, deciding if Utah is getting enough tax revenue for accepting wastes, whether it should take hotter radioactive wastes (called Class B and C wastes) and how the wastes should be regulated.
If there is one group that fights more than credit unions and banks it is the owners of waste companies, who fight among themselves more than with environmental activists.
"We need to study B and C wastes — all kinds of waste," said Ure, who got a bill passed this year that raises state fees on many kinds of waste, all with the understanding the task force would look at whether the increase was too much or not enough.
Ure went through the public wringer several years ago when he pushed through a major reworking of the Public Service Commission during the final days of the session, only to come back the next year and repeal it in the wake of additional study and public opposition. He said he's learned the value of studying complicated issues, especially if some legislators and the public don't understand the issue.
Waste certainly fits that category, he said.
It won't be the first time lawmakers have looked at waste issues. Several years ago, the Legislature hired a consultant to advise lawmakers on waste fees and policies common to other states that take similar wastes. The consultant fled the state in the middle of the night under threat of litigation from Envirocare of Utah, taking his research with him and vowing never to set foot in Utah again.
Lawmakers now have two years to find a new consultant willing to wade into a fray where combatants tend to litigate more than negotiate.
With the exception of hate crimes legislation, virtually every controversial issue before the 2003 Legislature will be studied this year with an eye toward new legislation in 2004.
Rep. Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake, said lawmakers use task forces and interim study in two ways. One is by opponents who use the additional study excuse to kill legislation without actually voting on it. It is affectionately referred to as "studying it to death."
The other strategy is used by bill sponsors as a way to keep the issue alive when there aren't enough votes to pass it. Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, is using that approach to force a discussion on whether soda cans and bottles should carry a 5-cent or 10-cent redemption to encourage recycling.
Davis said the Republican majority would not even debate the bill, but they did agree to study it. "That's as much as I could hope for this year," Davis said.
Becker thinks the 2003 Legislature made wise decisions to study some of the more complicated issues.
"I personally felt uncomfortable going forward with the credit union (taxation) bill," he said. "Some may fully understand the financial workings in this state, but I want more study on it. And B and C wastes and so on, these are very complicated issues."
Education will be at or near the top of the study list.
"We need to study not only tuition tax credits but a whole review of our education system," Alexander said.
And that's a pretty big elephant to swallow just by itself.
1/20: - Tuition tax credits
1/20: - Benefits of school choice touted
1/20: - The bill: Tuition tax credits
1/23: - School-tax bill faces fight
1/25: - Tuition credits get a boost
2/2: - Tuition bill worries Leavitt
2/3: - Tax credit near approval
2/5: - Tax credits win in Senate
Credit union bill stories:
1/19 - Banking hullabaloo: round 2
1/31: - Utah credit union bill revised
2/18: - Banks win an early round
N-waste tax bill stories:
1/28: - Proposal targets hot N-waste
3/3: - House passes waste-tax bill