Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Why is Utah's legislative session so boring this year?
Mike Terry, Deseret News
On behalf of Utah's journalists, lobbyists and political junkies, we convey our deep disappointment with the Utah State Legislature. The current crop of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have betrayed the time-honored tradition of offering ridiculous legislation and making outrageous statements. This statesmanlike conduct is downright reprehensible for reporters seeking controversy.
Is the perception a reality? Are there really fewer controversial bills and outlandish statements emanating from Capitol Hill?
Pignanelli: "The first requirement of a statesman is that he be dull. This is not always easy to achieve." — Dean Acheson
Perception is reality, as all educated observers agree: Utah's Capitol Hill is boring this year. (Almost as dreary as LaVarr). There are several reasons for the quiet.
All of the strange speeches and bizarre bills (which did happen — but to a lesser degree) were drowned in all the weirdness bursting from the Republican presidential campaign and associated controversies. Newt Gingrich's moon fantasies, Rick Santorum's sweater vests, Ron Paul's foreign policy of hiding in caves and Mitt Romney's hilarious attempts to portray himself as a normal human are much more interesting than the Legislature. Even Utah lawmakers' arguments over contraceptives were overshadowed by the initial bumbling of a similar issue by the Obama Administration. Our local team just cannot compete with the feds for quirky behavior.
Also, the 2011 session was a highwater mark for controversy (GRAMA, immigration reform, etc). Lawmakers are exhausted from their prior antics and the current session is a snoozer in comparison. Speaker Rebecca Lockhart has deftly guided her flock into safer areas of discourse, while Senate President Michael Waddoups hopes to leave this phase of his public life with dignity.
All these unusual dynamics create the perfect "non-storm."
Webb: It's real. It has been such an even-keeled, quiet session that even Frank's Democratic friends have been hard-pressed to find much to bluster about — although they've tried (and have been properly ignored). Legislative leaders have kept the focus on the big issues, like the budget, and have avoided sideshows.
Certainly, some controversial items are being addressed. Gun laws will ever be a topic of contention. Republican legislators will always criticize the federal government and fight over federal lands. Although their language could sometimes be more civil, this is a worthy cause because our federal system is dramatically out of balance. Utah absolutely suffers financially with so much federal ownership of our state. Our dysfunctional and bankrupt national government would be wise to devolve much of what it does to the states. Our nation's founders fully intended and expected that states would push back against federal encroachment. It's a battle worth fighting.
Immigration was predicted to be a hot topic for this session and has been sidelined. Why?
Webb: Legislative leaders are wisely taking a timeout from immigration legislation this year. They deserve praise. They are facing down outrage from the anti-immigration bullies and have stood their ground despite threats of political retribution in the upcoming caucuses and conventions. We can be grateful for LDS Church influence on this issue.
Pignanelli: All the efforts by business and religious organizations to instill reason into this debate have paid dividends. Further, the sensible approach crafted by Utah lawmakers in 2011 is highlighted when contrasted with draconian measures in other states. Our leaders have noted that the agricultural and service industries in states with tougher anti-immigration laws are now enduring unpicked rotting crops and the collapse of their labor market. The right-wing and the left-wing dislike the Utah solution — an indication of a solid compromise. Messing with success makes no sense.
Is this a temporary or permanent dynamic for Utah lawmakers?
Pignanelli: Politicos are anticipating a bumper crop of controversy for the 2013 Legislative Session. There will be numerous activists, fresh from the elections, who will spew inflammatory speeches by the tonnage. The presidential campaign will be a distant memory and the returning Obama administration (like it or not, that's where the general election is trending) will encourage both the right and the left to offer a multitude of bills and resolutions.
Webb: There is still time, of course, for the Legislature to come across looking like the bar scene in Star Wars. With 104 lawmakers, each strong-willed with a healthy ego and feeling a mandate from voters, it is impossible to prevent a crazy bill from being introduced or a crazy speech from being delivered in a committee or on the floor.
But smart, seasoned and pragmatic leaders seem to have firm control of this session, preventing major outbursts and avoiding lengthy debates on "message" bills. Remember, you don't judge an entire legislative session by a wacky speech or introduction of a wacky bill. You judge a Legislature by what is ultimately passed and signed by the governor. This has been a solid, conservative, problem-solving session, and lawmakers are to be commended for their devotion to getting the job done and avoiding silly stuff.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: email@example.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.