My view: Is the Utah Legislature listening?

By Maryann Martindale

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 21 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

The Utah State Capitol, Monday, Jan. 23, 2012.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

Every legislative session begs the same question: Do legislators actually care what their constituents want? They display an appalling amount of hubris when proposing legislation, oftentimes with complete disregard for public demands.

For example, in 2007, Utah voters turned out in record numbers to overturn the ill-fated voucher bill HB148. It was a resounding defeat that saw every single county in the state vote against vouchers. What did the public get in return? An insurmountable obstacle to public ballot initiatives and a renewed effort by pro-voucher legislators.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, in particular, has been relentless in his attempts to circumvent the public's will with regard to public education. This year is no exception with his tuition tax credit bill. He does his best to call it anything other than a voucher bill — he prefers it be seen as parental empowerment — but call it what you will, his bill would incent donations to private school scholarships by giving tax credits to donors. Sounds voucher-like to me. His contention that it would allow low-performing students the opportunity to attend private school is a pipe dream.

Despite the potential financial remuneration, private schools would still require potential students to adhere to their standards for admission. It is an irrational expectation that private schools will fling open their doors and suspend their academic benchmarks, and given the residual cost of private school attendance, it is even less realistic to anticipate that lower-performing scholarship students would fully benefit from and participate in a private school education.

In a classic sense of starving the beast, the sad reality is that Stephenson is systematically trying to underfund and incapacitate public education, despite the wishes of the majority of Utahns. With an overall education ranking of 42nd and per-pupil funding at 50th in the nation, Utah can't afford not to increase funds and find additional funding sources for public education. While there are certainly areas in which the education system could be improved (just like any other public program), we can't just throw the baby out with the proverbial bath water because Stephenson says so.

Another example of legislative arrogance and intransigence is the refusal to approve a statewide non-discrimination ordinance. Sen. Ben McAdams proposed the legislation with the support of the LDS Church, Utah's business community and most importantly, the people of Utah. Yet, unsurprisingly, the bill was tabled in committee by a 4-2 vote and, for the fifth year in a row, left to languish.

There are currently 14 Utah cities that have already enacted local non-discrimination ordinances. These ordinances were crafted carefully to balance the rights of the property or business owner and the rights of the LGBT tenant or employee. The claims of those in opposition are based on irrational fears and scare tactics rather than actual legal mandates.

Religious freedom is still intact and is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, but it is important to distinguish between true religious freedom and the use of a religious belief to excuse or even incent discrimination. To those LGBT citizens who fear retribution for living an authentic life, these ordinances provide protections from unfair firing, discrimination when seeking a place to live and the right to live without fear.

The fact that over 81 percent of Utahns already believe such protections exist and over 73 percent support statewide protections seems lost on the Legislature, as does the fact that such an ordinance is supported by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and large Utah employers including eBay, Adobe, American Express and Zions Bank. But perhaps the most shocking is the disregard given to the very clear, undeniable support given such an ordinance by the LDS Church.

With the threat of key businesses moving future jobs elsewhere, it is time for the pro-business Legislature to embrace their constituents' wishes and support statewide protections.

Moreover, it is time for the people of Utah to demand that their elected officials listen and start supporting the issues their constituents feel strongly about. Quality, well-funded public education and the innate right to be treated with unbiased fairness are values Utahns believe in, even if the Legislature does not.

Maryann Martindale is the executive director for Alliance for a Better UTAH.

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