News analysis: Utahns don't mind sending some messages

Published: Sunday, Jan. 23 2011 10:51 p.m. MST

If the 2011 Session of the Utah Legislature is typical, members will divide their labor by some percentage between the business of making sure our government is working, and making sure the world is aware of exactly where certain lawmakers stand on any number of hot-button issues.

The tendency to devote time to so-called "message" bills is too great a tradition to expect this or any Legislature to bypass. And interestingly, a recent poll of Utahns shows the citizens themselves are not opposed to having messages on some issues sent from Utah's Capitol Hill, directly to Washington.

A poll conducted for the Deseret News and KSL-TV shows that among the issues most likely to grab the attention of Utah voters — in the same neighborhood of education, the economy and illegal immigration – are the subjects of states' rights, a balanced federal budget and whether English should be formally made the only official language of the United States.

The poll, taken in September of 600 active voters, was conducted by Dan Jones and Associates as part of the Utah Priorities Project, an effort by the Deseret News, KSL, the Utah Foundation and the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, to assess the top issues among those most likely to vote in last November's general election. Though a few months old, the poll offers valid insight into the mood of the people who comprise the Legislature's full constituency.

The data shows voters also have a pragmatic side, and want specific things done to fix specific problems. If lawmakers read the results and take them to heart, they will invest more in public education with an eye toward specific benchmarks; they will work to bolster small business and thereby stimulate job growth, and they will spend a lot of time grappling with a lot of issues pertinent to the overall subject of unauthorized immigration.

But should lawmakers take time to fashion bills or resolutions to let Washington know exactly where Utah stands on a variety of issues, they will have the support – in principle at least – of much of their constituency. In fact, four of the ten questions that received the most vociferous agreement in the poll were on subjects one could categorize as "shot-across-the-bow" issues.

An example: 81 percent say they agree that English should be the official language of the U.S., and the poll shows those most in favor of such a declaration tend to describe themselves as Republican, "very conservative," and say they identify with the tenets of the Tea Party movement – in other words, the so-called "base" upon which many, if not most lawmakers predicated their candidacies.

"This whole last year and a half has been a time of strong messages with the Tea Party ascendancy," said Steve Kroes, President of the Utah Foundation, a partner in the poll. "There is no question there is a lot of distaste in Utah right now for the federal government. There is a lot of interest in sending a message and maybe Congress will hear it and react."

Much of the poll reflects the depth of the anti-Washington sentiment, whether it be fueled by Tea Party rhetoric, or not. Eighty-four percent of all of those polled support a federal balanced budget amendment, while only 29 percent say they identify strongly, or in some significant part, with the Tea Party movement.

The poll also shows unauthorized immigration is, by far, the most polarizing subject lawmakers will likely face. But the data may also reveal that positions change when the subject of the questioning moves from principle to actual people.

For example, 54 percent agree that illegal immigrants already in Utah should be deported. But 63 percent agree there should be a pathway to legalization for college students who were bought here illegally as children.

"As you make it more human, people tend to soften their positions," Kroes said. "In the big picture, people really aren't in favor of sticking it to the individual. Utah does have its compassionate side, so I don't think there is any disconnect there."

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