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Rolly: A warning to the Utah GOP

Published November 30, 2012 5:16 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

With the Republican sweeps this election, the party has majorities of 61-14 in the Utah House and 25-5 in the Senate, its largest advantage since the mid 1980s. So the Democrats have them right where they want them.

The 1985-86 Legislature had the same party ratio as the Legislature that will convene in January. Republicans swarmed to the State Capitol in those years, basking in the sun of Reagan conservatism and the glow of the Cowboy Caucus and the Sagebrush Rebellion.

But when a party wins such large majorities, it's like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get. Like the tea party of today that seems made up of divergent groups, all angry about something, that 1985-86 Legislature had a cast of new characters that the Republican leadership struggled to control.

Crazy bills were introduced in those years. One bill aimed at stopping the evil proliferation of subliminal messaging, which nobody seemed to know about but the bill's sponsor, who produced an expert witness to testify that liquor distributors hide subliminal images of naked women in their bottles so unsuspecting shoppers were compelled to buy them and become alcoholics.

Other legislators were obsessed with private militias, and pushed the idea of those survivalist types being sufficiently armed to protect us from impending attack by the federal government.

It got to the point that the GOP leadership sought out other Republicans to run in the next election cycle against some of the wackos. But it was too late. The weirdness at the Capitol and some economic problems gave the Democrats a chance to pounce. They picked up 14 House seats and five Senate seats in the 1986 mid-term election.

With their new numbers — 28 out of 75 in the House and 10 out of 29 in the Senate — the Democrats were positioned to call the shots on a key aspect of Utah's budget and tax policy. Republican Gov. Norm Bangerter, facing declining revenues due to downturns in the mining and construction industry and a stunning increase in public school enrollment, proposed a state record $168 million tax increase package. That gave conservatives in his party major heartburn.

Near the end of the 1987 legislative session, the majority leadership went to the Democrats and acknowledged they needed them to offset the bloc of Republicans who wouldn't vote for the tax increase.

In return, the little band of Democrats demanded and got a deal that would warm any liberal's heart: Removal of the federal tax deduction on state returns, which hit the wealthy, and a boost in the family income level at which taxes are imposed, which helped the poor.

With this coming session featuring the same number of Republicans as in the mid-1980s, could that perfect storm strike again for Democrats?

To be fair, this Legislature doesn't seem to have the colorful characters of the 1986 group. Republican newcomers elected in 2010 were mostly fiscally conservative, pro-business legislators who mostly were not enamored with the more extreme positions pushed by the tea party.

Also, most of the action-hero wannabes in the self-proclaimed Patrick Henry Caucus that provided so much entertainment the past couple of years are now gone, and last month's election favored more moderate conservatives.

But, really, who knows? —