This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. will tell you the 2006 Legislature was hunky-dory.
And you almost could believe him. If only things hadn't gone so terribly wrong for two of his highest priorities - tax reform and all-day kindergarten.
While putting a carefully confident smile on his face and uttering conciliatory sentences, behind the scenes, the governor has switched tactics with recalcitrant legislators. Last week, Huntsman and his staff scrambled to schedule a special session before his March 21 veto deadline, allowing him to hold legislators' bills over their heads if they won't approve his flatter income tax.
In the end, the machinations were unsuccessful and the session will go ahead as tentatively scheduled in May. The governor will not be able to use the threat of a veto to get his votes. Huntsman Deputy Chief of Staff Mike Mower said the unusual idea of an early session was simply an attempt "to strike while the iron is hot."
Timid no more: Still, the strategy reveals a very different state executive from the timid diplomat of 2005. This Huntsman is willing to twist arms and stomp on toes. But with legislative leaders already complaining about Huntsman's "aggressive" lobbying efforts and blaming his overreaching for the short-term demise of two of his pet projects, how effectively his exertions will work remains to be seen.
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank says after a year in office, Huntsman finally used the power of his office this year.
"If he's going to be a successful governor, he can't shy away from the fact that he is the governor," Burbank said. "He can get more attention than anyone else in the state. Legislators sometimes forget that."
Last year, Huntsman was media-shy, lying low. Unlike previous governors, he avoided inserting himself in the legislative process with carefully timed appeals to the public. And lawmakers liked that governor - the quiet, diplomatic type.
But a year is a long time.
As the session opened in January, Huntsman said he would judge his success by four initiatives. Besides asking lawmakers to set aside $7 million to fund all-day kindergarten for at-risk kids and lower the state's income tax rate from 7 percent to 4.95, the governor also wanted to remove the sales tax on food and reserve $65 million in seed money to foster development of high-tech spinoffs from the state's universities. He highlighted all four in his State of the State speech Jan. 17.
Lawmakers threw their own initiatives into the mix, proposing legislation to limit the governor's authority. One bill would have removed the governor's final say from the approval process for radioactive and other types of waste sites. Another would have stripped the governor's ability to hold up budget negotiations.
Huntsman aggressively tried to hold off that assault while lobbying intensely for his priorities.
Meantime, the governor made himself more available to the media, granting regular interviews about the session and confidently - some lawmakers would say arrogantly - placing himself in the lawmaking mix. Responding to the Utah Media Coalition's concerns, he threatened to veto legislation that would have allowed lawmakers to keep their e-mails private, forcing lawmakers to amend the bill. Though he voiced similar concerns about a bill to require environmentalists to post a bond before suing to stop a road or development, lawmakers still approved the legislation.
Burbank credits Huntsman with limiting the number of problematic bills that he will have to review, essentially sidestepping more tension with lawmakers. Last year, the new governor vetoed just two bills. So far this year, Huntsman has vetoed the so-called "Envirocare bill" on waste-site approval.
"Some of the worst relationships between governors and legislators are marked by a lot of vetoes," Burbank said.
Though his opposition apparently influenced the prospects of particular bills, Huntsman was unable to avoid other confrontations. His two legislative fronts - protecting his office and pushing his agenda - intersected, and the resulting, ego-bruising backroom deals may have hurt his priorities. By the end, the governor had held off assaults on his office, but could claim credit only for completing 1 1/2 of his four key projects: Lawmakers granted his request for USTAR funding and cut the sales tax proposal in half.
The day after the lawmaking session ended, the governor was flip about how his initiatives fared.
"Nothing is guaranteed, not even whether the governor is going to show up for work tomorrow," Huntsman said.
Undaunted, he gamely pledges to bring back next year all-day kindergarten and cutting another chunk of the state's share of the sales tax on food.
Wondering what went wrong: But behind closed doors, the governor is frustrated, asking his advisers to analyze why House members they believed were in line to vote for tax reform revolted when the bill was opened for debate in the final hour of the session. Now, governor's office staff have shifted to bringing fractious lawmakers back into the fold in the next two months. Huntsman still wants to salvage tax reform. In many ways, his legislative session has not ended.
"Some of them actually did their homework, while others probably did not," Huntsman said. "We have the data and the experts. We're going to make them available."
Burbank says Huntsman's error was in not taking the case for tax reform to the public. He and his advisers prodded members of a legislative task force for months. Then, their attention shifted to lawmakers. Individual taxpayers were not brought along for the ride through news conferences nor through town meetings, Burbank says, one of the prerogatives of a chief executive. If the public had bought the concept, lawmakers would not have been able to deny the governor.
"It wasn't a complete defeat. But it was a little surprising it was such a hard sale for a group of lawmakers who like a lower tax rate in general," said Burbank.
Although he avoided taking his case to the public - a tactic lawmakers despise - Huntsman's priorities might have been indirectly doomed by Capitol Hill gamesmanship. The governor's efforts to protect his office and assert himself turned off many lawmakers. He forged an alliance with House leadership on the sales tax on food, forcing senators to abandon their high ideals about the state's tax structure and negotiate. Some read his confident comments to reporters after a news conference announcing the deal as gloating. Already bruised by Huntsman's opposition to the "Envirocare bill," senators were fed up.
"The Senate really does not like [taking] the sales tax off of food," said Senate President John Valentine. "We still don't."
About the same time, House leaders abandoned the governor's tax reform plan. Representatives faced with a complicated bill and frustrated as their own bills stalled, were reluctant to vote the governor's way.
Both senators and representatives now say the governor pushed too hard. They rebuffed his attempt to schedule an early special session.
"The one mistake I think the governor made was: He asserted himself this session," said House Speaker Greg Curtis, the day after lawmakers wrapped up. "It is a fine line between exerting yourself and totally frustrating those who you are exerting your pressure against and having a backlash. I think he crossed that line."
Whether Curtis is analyzing what happened or trying to shape the governor's future behavior, Huntsman apparently is way over that line and unlikely to go back - as his play of strategy last week attests.
"We're never supposed to be part of the same club," Huntsman said before the session opened. "I love the give and take with the Legislature. It won't always be harmonious. But it's not supposed to be."
Tribune reporters Matt Canham and Glen Warchol contributed to this story.