Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: In a quiet year, here are some courageous lawmakers

Published: Sunday, March 4 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Pignanelli & Webb: "Are they doing any good up there?" That's a question we frequently hear during the legislative session. Citizens often get a skewed image of the Legislature because the news media (us included) tend to focus on the unusual and inflammatory.

While it is much more fun to make snide remarks about legislative action, the truth is that almost all of what happens on the Hill is solid and sensible, and lawmakers receive little recognition for this work.

In addition, a number of legislators each session demonstrate real courage when they confront the establishment, their fellow party members, or conventional norms, sometimes putting themselves in political peril — in order to make a difference.

Here's a short sampling of lawmakers who are sticking their necks out, for good or for bad (depending on your political perspective). Please note: Frank has a dog in almost all these legislative fights. He is more conflicted than Woody Allen.

— Multitasking Rep. John Dougall, well-known for his tendency to address five issues in five minutes, has focused hard on one topic: reducing the frequency of required automobile safety inspections. His arguments are not based on the typical anti-government hyperbole. Instead he presents compelling facts that dispute the efficacy of the current program. He has stood up to an army of Jiffy Lube mechanics who stormed the Capitol to maintain the status quo. Regardless of anyone's position on the issue, Dougall's command of the facts and his dedication deserve respect.

— After the trauma of HB477 last year, lawmakers never wanted to hear of public records or GRAMA again. Indeed, it would have been easy for the Legislature to avoid the issue and maintain the status quo — no one would have objected. But Sen. Curt Bramble ... being Bramble ... seized the opportunity. On behalf of the Legislature, he apologized and pushed legislation to actually strengthen GRAMA. Although some colleagues grumbled, state government will be more open than ever. This is an example of making a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

— We often hear about attempts to reform education — but rarely from a Democrat and a teacher. Rep. Carol Spackman Moss was a well-liked instructor at Olympus High School and has been a strong defender of public education in the Legislature. She is sponsoring a pilot project that will evaluate and assist underperforming veteran teachers.

— It seems that all successful alcohol beverage legislation is sponsored by Republicans. One of Frank's favorite bills — opening liquor stores on holidays — is sponsored by Democrat Rep. Patrice Arent. In defiance of tradition, the bill actually passed the House.

— As a former leader of the Conservative Caucus and co-host of "Red Meat Radio," Rep. Greg Hughes' bona fides as a solid conservative are impeccable. And yet, he is the bulldog sponsor of legislation that would place a non-binding opinion question on the election ballot seeking voter opinion regarding a statewide sales tax dedicated to arts and culture, patterned somewhat after local RAP and ZAP taxes. It is hotly contested and barely passed the House, but no one doubts the ability of Hughes to secure passage.

— The Capitol Rotunda almost collapsed from exclamations of shock when House Republican leadership announced support for a pilot project supporting coverage and treatment of autistic children. Using the threat of mandating insurance coverage of autism through legislation, they are developing a voluntary program for contributions from the business and insurance community. The plans are a little rickety, but the creativity and gumption are commendable.

— Rep. Jim Bird is not a high-profile legislator, but he has moxie. He challenged one of the most powerful business organizations in the state (the New Car Dealers of Utah, led by Craig Bickmore) with quixotic legislation allowing consumers to return a vehicle three days after purchase. The bill was crushed but not his spirit.

— After winning a legislative seat in a special election, Sen. Aaron Osmond dived deeply into public education reform, bringing long-warring parties together to find common ground. He and Sen. Howard Stephenson are using this momentum with the State Office of Education and the Department of Workforce Services to utilize technology in outreach to students and parents.

— Sen. Stephen Urquhart is quietly but effectively driving higher education change with a mission-based focus. The process started last year, but his efforts in 2012 are moving needed reform forward.

— Sens. Ben McAdams and Ross Romero are engaged in a tough battle for the Democratic Salt Lake County mayor nomination. But each lawmaker is sponsoring legislation that would make a real difference to gay and lesbian Utahns. McAdams has a statewide nondiscrimination bill (similar to what a number of local governments have passed), while Romero is sponsoring a bill to provide rights of co-parents.

— Rep. Jim Dunnigan is recognized as the ultimate authority on health insurance at the Capitol. He is utilizing this credibility and support of his colleagues to develop a strong state market-based alternative to federal health care reform.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.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: frankp@xmission.com.

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