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Capitol Hill Surprise: GOP supermajority leads to more collaboration with Democrats

First Published      Last Updated Mar 20 2017 08:40 am

Analysis » GOP supermajority leads to collaboration as Democrats pass half their bills with only a sixth of all votes.

A paradox has emerged at the Utah Legislature: Because Republicans rule by a supermajority, they fear Democrats less — so they tend to collaborate with them more, according to one political scientist.

The results tell the story. Democrats this year passed half of their bills, while controlling only one-sixth of the votes. Party-line votes ended up being fairly rare, and a typical bill passed with bipartisan support by more than 90 percent of all legislators.

"The partisan rancor that pervades national politics seldom reaches the Utah Legislature," said Adam Brown, a Brigham Young University political science professor, who reviewed and analyzed votes by the Legislature this year.

While the ideology gap between the parties is just as big or bigger here than in other states, Brown said Republicans have no overriding political need to block Democratic bills that they may like.

Republicans hold a 24-5 majority in the Senate, and a 62-13 edge in the House — or 83 percent of all seats.

Brown said when a minority is within striking distance of taking the majority — usually the case in Congress — the majority has "a strong incentive to show your party is the one who governs well, and you do that by preventing their party from getting their ideas through — and by getting your own through."

But in the Utah Legislature, "Republicans have nothing to fear from Democrats. They don't have to worry that Democrats, by passing some bill, may go to voters and say, 'Look at what we did, you should make us the majority.'"

Also, he says Utah Democrats for years have chosen not to be mere bomb throwers at Republicans, except on the bills that they view as most egregious, trying generally "to get along to go along."

"So you have it on both hands: Republicans aren't worried about Democrats, and the Democrats have chosen not to worry them by mostly playing a gentler strategy that allows them to have more success than if they were to get in the face of leadership," Brown said.

Leaders' views • Legislative leaders largely agree with Brown, but quibble about the reasons behind the bipartisan collaboration — and note that some bitter exceptions exist.

"I think that we as Democrats try to be smart in working with our Republican colleagues," House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said. "For the most part, we don't throw bombs just to throw bombs… but there are times you have to stand up for your beliefs" and may pay a price for that.

For example, he said Democrats strongly opposed a bill that would remove requirements for partisan diversity on dozens of state boards and commissions. Republicans, seeking at least some Democratic support, removed a few boards from that list that seemed to be more political in nature.

"It made a terrible bill just a crappy bill," King said. All House Democrats still opposed it. So Senate Republicans amended it back to its original form.

King said several Republicans told him that was done to send a message essentially that "if you don't vote for the bad bill, we're going to pass the terrible bill." Democrats opposed it loudly, and watched it pass on a largely party-line vote.

Still, King notes he is usually able to criticize bills without retribution. "As long as I don't get personal, I have a lot of leeway — and I appreciate that."

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said, "We try to work things out, not just throw political bombs at each other."

He notes that with the big GOP majority in the Senate, "I could just completely make Democrats irrelevant ... but that's not what I want to happen. I want there to be a cooperative spirit of working out policy issues. We want to be a Senate that works together no matter what party you are in."

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