As is now painfully evident, the 2011 Utah Legislature ended on a down note with the unfortunate fast-track passage of a bill that cloaks the communications of state politicians in secrecy. That bill, HB477, was signed by Gov. Gary Herbert, who nevertheless has promised an open and public process to amend it before it is scheduled to take effect on July 1.
We await that process eagerly and intend to ensure he follows through on this promise. Meanwhile, however, it is important to note the successes of this Legislature, which seem to have been swallowed up by the bad news.
Lawmakers succeeded in dramatic fashion on two fronts of particular importance to the health of families and financial security: immigration reform and balancing the budget without a tax increase.
It would be hard to find a more incendiary political issue in recent years than immigration reform. While there appears to be near-universal agreement that the federal government ultimately is responsible for finding solutions, other states have sought to satisfy public anger through punitive laws. This year's Utah Legislature, however, pioneered new ground by addressing, in a comprehensive and effective way, the complex issues involved.
Instead of an enforcement-only approach, lawmakers opted to require law enforcement to check on the immigration status of those detained for serious crimes (HB497) while also providing for an innovative guest worker program (HB116).
These bills work together to balance Utahns' justifiable concern with safety and security against the need for fairness and compassion. They recognize the need to provide a reasonable way for families of goodwill, caught in the shadowy system of illegal immigration, to come into the light and continue to work.
The guest worker bill would require the payment of a fine, a criminal background check and would encourage English language proficiency. It also would require explicit cooperation with the federal government, recognizing how the bill challenges federal powers over the status of immigrants. Overall, it is a pragmatic solution based on Utah values that addresses a thorny issue with which Congress has refused to deal. Taken together, these bills are reasons for Utahns to feel their state is far ahead of the pack in terms of handling this issue.
The Legislature's budget success, meanwhile, cannot be overstated. In a year when some states are resorting to huge tax increases while others are selling off landmarks, closing state parks or slashing services in desperate, perhaps futile, attempts to make ends meet, Utah appears to be emerging from the recession positioned for a strong rebound.
That wasn't the work of this Legislature alone. It stretches back many years to when lawmakers first decided to set aside Rainy Day funds for emergencies. When the recession hit three years ago, lawmakers and the governor agreed on an approach that judiciously combined cuts with a gradual spending of those reserves. Then in 2010 they reformed public pension plans, heading off a disaster that loomed because the state's retirement investments had suffered huge losses during the market collapse of 2008.
They have, in other words, steered the state through murky recession-plagued waters while avoiding sharp rocks and shattering rapids.
Other states are just beginning to come to terms with the pension crisis. In Utah, news this year that state revenues had begun to rebound gave lawmakers the freedom to restore funding in key areas. They increased the public education budget by 2.2 percent.
The Legislature did some things this year worthy of strong criticism. They removed the 1,000-foot gun-free zones around public schools. They wasted a great deal of time arguing over differences between a democracy and a republic before finally passing a bill requiring teachers to tell students the United States is a "constitutional compound republic." They made it harder for citizens to place initiatives on the ballot.
But, as is true most years, the issues that got the most publicity — a bill that would have allowed people to kill feral cats and a measure to raise the sales tax on food, to name just two — died before becoming law.
Utah is one of only six states with a true citizen Legislature and with minimal full-time staff. That is something for which the people of the state should give thanks. Lawmakers are chosen from various walks of life, and at the end of the session they return home to live among the people they represent. The final assessment of this year's Legislature will have to await the outcome of HB477, but no one should overlook the unique triumphs that ought to set this group apart, and that prove the value of a government by the people.
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