The Utah Legislature took a big stride toward the political center this year, conservative and liberal groups agree a shift propelled in part by the retirements or election defeats of a number of outspoken, ultraconservative lawmakers.
Moderation seemed evident when lawmakers this year approved long-blocked measures to ban smoking in cars with children, passed the first prohibition on cellphone use while driving for teens only and appeared somewhat less enthralled with so-called "message bills" aimed at trumpeting states' rights and other conservative causes.
That apparent swing toward the center is now confirmed by the combined annual scorecards of seven special interest groups, both conservative and liberal, which give detailed rankings according to individual legislators' votes on key bills.
The previous Legislature earned a median score of 73 on a scale of zero to 100, where 100 is the most conservative possible and 50 is the political center. This year, the median was 60 Â still well to the right, but a big step back from where it had been.
"That's a pretty significant change," said Rep. Keith Grover, R-Provo. "In their behavior, [new members] don't seem as extreme. The tone, the feeling, the dialogue this year was much less conservative than in the past; I think because not as many 'message bills' were pushed."
He also observed that legislators' "presentations were less bombastic."
Grover should know. He was one of five founders of the conservative Patrick Henry Caucus, and the only one who returned to the Legislature this year.
The other caucus founders Â Republican Reps. Carl Wimmer, Chris Herrod, Steve Sandstrom and Ken Sumsion Â all lost races for Congress or governor. Other outspoken conservatives who lost legislative races last year included GOP Reps. Bill Wright, Merlynn Newbold, Craig Frank, Brad Daw and Sen. Casey Anderson.
That outgoing group scored a median conservative ranking of 80 in 2011, compared to the 63 given the GOP freshmen.
Hatch effect • Many Utah conservatives blamed defeat last year on what they called the "Hatch effect."
Sen. Orrin Hatch spent millions to recruit new people to party caucuses to oust the tea partyers and other conservatives who, as state Republican Convention delegates, had dumped Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010. The effort was boosted by letters from LDS Church leaders read over the pulpit urging broader caucus participation for more representative candidate nominations.
It helped Hatch survive. Conservative candidates said the influx of more moderate delegates led to their ouster at convention in primaries. The impact on the Legislature was measurable.
Combined conservative scores not only show an overall median of 60 for the 2013 Legislature as it moved toward the middle, but indicated a shift among Republicans from 77 in 2011 to 63 this year. Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers who were fewer in number after last year's election moved a bit further left, scoring a median of 27, compared to 32 two years ago.
Shifts • Don Guymon, president of the conservative GrassRoots, said his group noticed significant shifts in its scorecard.
"Our scores were way down over previous years, and down 10 points over the last session," he said.
He noted several bills that had been defeated in previous legislatures Â such as banning cellphone use by teenage drivers and banning smoking in cars where children are present Â passed this year. Previously, right-wing legislators persuaded colleagues those proposals were infringements on personal liberty and parental rights.
"The Legislature took a turn toward bigger government," Guymon complained.
Paul Mero, president of the conservative Sutherland Institute, also tracked a significant move, but reads it as something other than political moderation.
"This year's [conservative] score is quite a bit lower than last year's aggregate score," he said, "Our take is that the new members are not more moderate as much as they are more libertarian."
So, he said, first-term members were more likely to support such things as removing the "Zion Curtain" blocking restaurant patrons' view of liquor service. That proposal passed in the House, but was killed by powerful veterans in the Senate.
Mark Clemens, manager of the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, said his group saw "some incremental improvements" toward moderation Â including rejection of a conservative resolution seeking to denounce United Nations Agenda 21 for sustainable growth as promoting socialism. "My take is that the tea party may have run its course."
He found it interesting that in most cases freshmen voted as a group almost exactly the same as returning lawmakers.
"Our scorecard shows that most members essentially vote yes on everything," he said.
"For the new freshmen, they may be looking for guidance from their leaders Â and they may have heard stories about what happens to people who step out of line. Most of what comes before the body is proposed by Republicans, and most of them supported most" of that agenda.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart takes a different view than most of the interest groups, saying the Legislature seemed no more conservative or moderate than previously.
"It felt the same as it has for a long time to me," she said. "There were a few individuals who were more moderate than others, but on the whole, it is where it always has been."
Variations • While scores indicate that freshmen were more moderate as a group than the lawmakers they replaced, there were still wide variations among individuals.
First-term Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, ranked as the most conservative overall with a score of 84. Two years ago, Wimmer ranked as most conservative with a score of 91.
Two other freshmen this year finished in the top five most conservative: Reps. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove who pushed a controversial gun bill attempting to elevate Utah firearms statutes over federal laws and John Knotwell, R-Herriman.
"I think it's representative of my district. I'm happy with my [most conservative] rating," Roberts said.
On the other end of the spectrum, first-term Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, was the most moderate of all Republicans with a score of 37. Two years ago, Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, had the most moderate GOP score of 42.
Also in the top five most moderate Republicans were freshmen Reps. Edward Redd, R-Logan, and Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, both with scores of 40. Shiozawa and Hall replaced Democrats in two of the few swing districts in the state.
"I ran as a moderate," Shiozawa said. "I come from a district that is moderate. I think [residents] are comfortable with how I vote."
Shiozawa's score was still more conservative than those of all 19 Democrats in the 104-member Legislature.
The most liberal in the Legislature was Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray, with a score of just 16 on the conservative scale.
A chart of scores for all legislators is online at sltrib.com
Editor's Note: To evaluate votes, The Salt Lake Tribune combined scorecards of seven special-interest groups that ranked 2013 legislators based on votes they consider important. Two groups are considered liberal: the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club and the Utah Education Association. Five are conservative: GrassRoots, the Libertas Institute, Parents for Choice in Education, the Sutherland Institute and the Utah Taxpayers Association.
The groups generally agree about who is conservative and who is liberal. Their scores were combined and averaged on a scale from zero to 100, where a higher score means a member is more conservative.
More moderate scores
Scorecards from special-interest groups show a move to the political center by the Legislature this year. Combined scores rank lawmakers on a scale from 0-100, with higher scores meaning a member is more conservative. Here are some medians:
73 • Previous Legislature, 2011, (23 points right of the political center)
60 • 2013 Legislature
63 • 2013 GOP freshmen
80 • Conservative Republicans defeated or departed last year.
Source: Scorecards of seven special interest groups that rank lawmakers.