I have worked as a health, safety and child advocate/lobbyist in the Utah Legislature for 29 years. During that time, I have watched as statesmanship, compromise and cooperation between the two parties has diminished — greatly. The Republican Party has consolidated its strength and more and more listens to its ideology and to special interest groups: business, the Eagle Forum and the tea party. There is little transparency. Its party caucuses during the legislative session are closed to the public, while Democratic caucuses are open.
Republican Leadership exercises striking power over its membership in passing the legislation it wants, often contrary to public opinion polls. Make no mistake, I have great of respect for nearly all of our legislators. They work long hours, both during and between the 45-day sessions. They negotiate and lobby hard, supporting the wishes of their constituents, lobbyists, their ideology and their leadership's decisions.
So, how did the Legislature do this year? A few examples: public education, mandated to be "free" by the state constitution, received some funding, but Utah still has the lowest per-pupil funding and the highest pupil-to-teacher ratio in the nation to contend with the highest birth rate in the nation. Message bills abounded, one demanding that the federal government give Utah control, but with decreased funding, of Medicare for seniors, Medicaid for the needy and CHIP for kids.
They demanded control of federal lands from Washington. But these bills, while shouting state sovereignty to the voters, will not have effect without federal permission. Anti-discrimination bills failed despite public support. Teenagers can still drive while on their cellphones, just like mom and dad. Funding to treat a limited number of children with autism did pass. The Republicans essentially controlled the proceedings, and the passage or failure of nearly all bills presented.
The solution to all this? If you're happy with the system, with the results of this legislative session and with the votes of your legislator, then sit back and watch TV on caucus night and you will see more of the same next year. If, on the other hand, you're not pleased, then act to change the system.
Protest rallies and referendums are not effective. The only way to effect change in our current caucus/primary convention system is to participate in it. This current system allows a relatively few number of dedicated groups to determine the candidates in the general election and often to eliminate candidates the voting public would like to see on the ballot, for example the recent eliminations of Sen. Bob Bennett and former Gov. Olene Walker.
Whether you support the current system or would like to exchange it for a general primary election, you have to participate in your caucus. Perhaps become a delegate to select and elect candidates who will either support or change the system. Attend both your neighborhood caucuses, Democratic and Republican.
Democratic neighborhood caucuses are today. Anyone in a precinct can attend and speak up. All registered voters may vote in and/or be elected as delegates to their county and state conventions. See www.utahdemocrats.org or call the party office at 801-328-1212 to find the location of your caucus.
Republican neighborhood caucuses are Thursday. They are less open. Anyone may attend, but only registered Republicans may vote or become delegates to the party conventions. See www.utgop.org or call 533-9777 to find your caucus site.
The choice is yours. Silence is permission. Action speaks.
Dr. Tom Metcalf is a retired pediatrician who remains actively interested in community, state and international health and safety issues.