Dan Liljenquist rising from ashes of plane crash

Published: Sunday, Jan. 23 2011 9:00 p.m. MST

Randy Shumway, president of Cicero Group, echoes Jowers' assessment.

"Last year," Shumway said, "Dan tackled the state pension plan that could've been devastating to the state collectively — to the participants in the state pension plan, to all taxpayers. … He is a superb state senator. He's willing to take on the challenging topics most critical to our state. And he does it in a very data-oriented, methodical and strategic manner such that he's able to remove much of the initial emotions from the debate and drive toward thoughtful and appropriate solutions."

Liljenquist recently came to loggerheads with Senate president Michael Waddoups over committee assignments for the 2011 legislative session. Liljenquist's elegantly simple solution: run against Waddoups for the Senate presidency.

"I think that was a little unusual," said Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, the minority leader of the Utah State Senate. "With him being new to the body and not having leadership experience, it did surprise me that he wanted to take the (president's) chair."

Ultimately Liljenquist lost to Waddoups by a single vote. GOP insiders and media outlets alike have speculated that Waddoups punished Liljenquist for stepping out of line by stripping him of the vice chairmanship of the Executive Appropriations Committee. Waddoups, however, contends that Liljenquist's 2011 committee assignments — including new appointments as the chairman of the Ethics Committee and a member of the influential Rules Committee — are just as good if not better than before.

"I think if you look at where he's at, he got some very choice appointments and is probably on more committees than he was before," Waddoups said. "We put him in places where we need his expertise and his capabilities."

Given ample opportunity to criticize Liljenquist's potentially impetuous challenge, Waddoups instead chose to heap praise on the freshman senator from Davis County.

"With his unlimited energy, he's been compared to the Energizer Bunny," Waddoups said. "He just goes and goes and goes. He's very intelligent. He's well trained in economic theory and how to profitably turn a struggling organization around. So he's got some real skills."

The big issue presently in Liljenquist's crosshairs for the upcoming legislative session is Medicaid reform. Medicaid is an entitlement program, meaning that all eligible applicants must be accepted and there is no cap on the number of participants. It currently accounts for 18 percent of state expenditures, a figure projected to reach 36 percent within a decade. Without serious reform, Medicaid will siphon hundreds of millions of dollars from the state's education spending.

"Now Dan is jumping from that (pension) pan into the fire of Medicaid," Jowers said. "The Medicaid financial hole, now with the pension-plan thing solved, is perhaps our state's biggest financial problem. It restrains all of our other funding choices. I think we all wish him Godspeed in having similar success there."

Liljenquist's political future is a veritable plethora of possibility. In 2012 he could seek reelection, vie for the governor's mansion or maybe even run for the U.S. Senate. For a statewide election his biggest obstacle would ostensibly be his name recognition, something Jowers roughly estimates at 3 percent or less.

"For those who want to tear Dan down a little bit for ambition, in my mind at least so far his ambition has all been for the good of the state," Jowers said. "He has gone and tackled actual problems, and if that leads the state to believe because of what he's been able to do here that he might be able to go and solve some of our crippling issues on the national level, which no one is able to touch, then he probably deserves that position far more than someone who just strikes an ideological chord with a group of people and gets that position."

Two and a half years removed from the plane crash that irrevocably altered his life's course, Liljenquist's interests include things both old and new.

"A lot of the hobbies that I used to do, sports and other things, I'm kind of limited because of injuries from my plane crash," he said.

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