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2016 Legislature 'more quiet' politically

SALT LAKE CITY — Friction had already been sparked between Republican and Democratic House leaders before the start of the 2016 Legislature over the minority party being shut out from the debate over Medicaid expansion.

But those tensions seldom surfaced publicly during the 45-day session that ended Thursday and saw supermajority Republicans keeping all of their caucus discussions on issues open to the press and the public.

The GOP did stir concern from Democrats in both the House and the Senate, however, by pushing successfully for HB220, a bill that shifts control of two key legislative committees to the majority.

Gov. Gary Herbert, who said he doesn't have a problem with the concept but plans to take a closer look at that bill before deciding whether to sign or veto it, noted lawmakers had less to battle over this session.

"I think this has a been a more quiet session because we didn’t have a big, loud issue like Healthy Utah," the governor said. "Maybe that gives the appearance of less friction."

In 2015, Herbert's Healthy Utah plan for using the funds available for Medicaid expansion under President Barack Obama's health care law pitted not only Republicans against Democrats, but also the House against the Senate.

After the failure of that plan, as well as another alternative from the governor and GOP legislative leaders, House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, complained that Democrats were being left out of the decision-making process.

That's because House Republicans had determined in closed-door caucus meetings they couldn't muster enough votes to pass either the governor's Medicaid expansion plan or, later, the alternative, without Democrats.

This session, a scaled-down plan to extend traditional Medicaid only to the most needy from House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, was approved with little drama, although Democrats tried to win support for full Medicaid expansion.

"It as a pretty smooth session," House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said, noting lawmakers reached agreement earlier than usual on the $15.1 billion budget that included no tax increases or new bonding.

But Hughes said Democrats did seem "a little more devoted to party building," attempting to showcase their differences with Republicans in an election year for every House member. "It is what it is."

King said he and Hughes were able to set aside their differences this session. House Democrats, he said, would have stepped up to support the GOP's Medicaid plan had their votes been needed even though it was far from what they wanted.

He said House Democrats were together on most key issues.

"We had to be. We only have 12 of us. We're working hard," the minority leader said, "in a way that's calculated toward increasing the number of Democrats" in the 75-member House.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said most of the friction between the 29 members of the Senate and the House this year came in the legislative process, especially as bills went back and forth the last few days of the session.

"We get upset because we think there's too much talking to the bills," Niederhauser said. "We have to accept these little nuances in each body, and sometimes we're a little impatient with each other, but we get through it."

Democrats did turn up the volume in the debate over HB220, the bill that alters the makeup of the Legislative Management Committee and the Legislative Audit Subcommittee.

Both the management committee that handles staff hiring and other administrative duties, and the audit subcommittee, have had an equal number of Republicans and Democrats since being created in 1975 by a Democrat-controlled Legislature.

But HB220, sponsored by Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, and passed the last night of the session, gives the Senate president and House speaker — both positions held by the majority — tiebreaking powers on the management committee.

Originally, the bill had added majority members to the committee but was amended in the Senate to make it more palatable.

It also allots to members of the minority leadership teams in the House and Senate only two of the six positions on the audit subcommittee, which determines which agency reviews requested by lawmakers go forward.

House Minority Caucus Manager Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, a former legislative attorney, said introducing partisan politics into the administrative and audit decisions will affect the state's ability to hire and retain legislative staff.

"It brings us closer to mimicking D.C. politics," Arent said, calling it "bad public policy. The bill still destroys the 40-plus year working relationships that transcended political ideology."

Christensen said his bill was intended to ensure the committees reflect the will of the voters in selecting one party over another to control the Legislature and should not be seen as a political move.

"I’m saddened and somewhat surprised, I guess, by any negative suggestions at all,” Christensen said during the House floor debate on the amended bill. “It could not be more sincere or more pure or more principled.”

Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said he doesn't believe the new makeup of the committees will be a deterrent with current Senate leadership, but down the road it could be.

"I think we set a roadblock that could tilt the balance going into the future. I'm hoping not because it's based on personalities and political personalities as well, Davis said.

Niederhauser said he agrees legislative leaders need to keep a strong, nonpartisan staff and won't do things differently because of the changes.

"I don't have any desire not to have good debate and have people speaking freely," Niederhauser said. "I'm one to let the chips land where they may."

Contributing: Dennis Romboy, Emily Larson


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