Utahns are fortunate to live in a state with a part-time, citizen Legislature. While government structures vary widely nationwide, this is one of only six states where most lawmakers literally lay down their tools or leave their offices and boardrooms for a few days each year to write laws and set the state's budget with minimal help from full-time staff.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, it is also by far the largest of those states, in terms of population. Population tends to breed full-time lawmaking. We hope the Beehive State resists that trend.
Today begins the Legislature's annual 45-day session. These gatherings are not without controversies or disputes. A republican form of government is meant to be difficult.
And yes, each year an inordinate amount of attention is paid to the more frivolous bills that are filed — the "message" bills designed to intimidate Washington or the ones that offer bizarre solutions to problems many people didn't know existed. Unfortunately, the successes of Utah's citizen Legislature can be obscured.
Those successes have been evident in recent years as the state weathered the worst national recession in recent memory without resorting to tax increases, the sale of valuable landmarks or draconian cuts. In Utah, lawmakers had wisely set aside money in rainy day funds that helped ease the state through the toughest times.
Perhaps that sort of budgeting can be expected from lawmakers who have to return to the business world and live with the tax structure they created, or who have to confront constituents in their neighborhoods or at church who will demand answers.
This is not to say citizen legislatures are perfect or without serious challenges. Lawmakers often are criticized for passing bills that help their own businesses. They sometimes appear more interested in lobbyists than in average citizens. There sometimes is a lack of sophistication evident in how some react to national issues or propose things unlikely to withstand court challenges.
Still, these problems are relatively small compared with how out of touch lawmakers would become if legislating were a full-time occupation. Part-time lawmaking is messy, but wonderful.
This year, lawmakers will face continuing budget challenges. The perpetual struggle to fund public and higher education will be chief among these. Highway funding, including proposals to raise gas taxes, also is likely to stir debate. So will the question as to whether Utah should expand Medicaid or adapt its health insurance exchange to fit within the parameters of the Affordable Care Act.9 comments on this story
The Constitution begins with the words, "We the people." That set the tone for how Americans ideally want to view the relationship between the government and the governed. It's a part of the nation's heritage as old as the Boston tea party or the wagon ruts carved through the Western wilderness by people using their freedom to build a better life.
In a government close to the people, public service demands a degree of sacrifice, which can act as a natural buffer to the baser instincts of power.
As usual, we will add our voice to the debates with strong opinions. Our editorials will spare neither criticism nor praise. As the 2013 Utah Legislature convenes, however, we join with all Utahns is offering thanks to those men and women who took civic duty seriously enough to stand for election and serve.