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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Legislature review: Hot topics coming down the stretch

Published: Sunday, Feb. 23 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Jordan Allred, Deseret News

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The Legislature hit "Hump Day" (session half-point) last week. The session gets hotter down the stretch. We review some of the most interesting issues:

Speaker Rebecca Lockhart announced a new initiative to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for technology in public education. The proposal and its price tag have sparked heated debate at the Capitol and in the education community. Is the speaker a naïve dreamer or visionary disruptor?

(Pignanelli) "When men attempt bold gestures, generally it's considered romantic. When women do it, it's often considered desperate or psycho." — Sarah Jessica Parker

If Lockhart were born under different conditions, she would still be famous — but as a successful hedge fund trader or the world champion of poker. She is fearless and enjoys making calculated political risks — that usually capture great returns. The speaker proposes to restructure portions of public education for an aggressive technology curriculum. But program details and the resources to support it are slow in coming. As a result, many lawmakers are quietly attempting to derail or minimize her efforts (most of them are Republicans).

To exploit the wagering metaphor (another vice of which I have experience), Lockhart has placed a huge pile of her political chips on this gamble. Many politicos believe the odds are against her this time. But underestimating Lockhart is a dangerous adventure on Capitol Hill. Others are convinced she "counted the cards" and has the advantage in the next hand. Regardless of the outcome, the audacity of the speaker’s bet will embolden others in the future.

(Webb) I like politicians who have big, bold ideas and push the limits. Certainly, excellent use of technology could be a game-changer in public education. When I worked for Gov. Mike Leavitt many years ago we followed a rule that only 40 percent of the success of a big initiative is determined by how good and persuasive the idea is. The remaining 60 percent of success is determined by who is consulted with in advance, whether a strong coalition can be developed, and how the credit is shared. Big ideas become reality only if an enormous amount of work is spent discussing, educating and winning consensus among the various stakeholders.

I believe Lockhart understands the complexity and high cost of her proposal. But by springing the idea on most stakeholders without a great deal of discussion and broad coalition-building, it has little chance of passing as initially proposed.

Is this the year the Legislature allows tax subsidies for the new Salt Lake City convention hotel?

(Pignanelli) Regardless of whether one supports or despises the government sponsorship of this hotel, the recent momentum for it demands respect. Last year, Speaker Lockhart's suspicions of the project were shared by many conservative legislators, which ensured defeat. Impervious to battering from the downtown business community, Lockhart detailed she would only lend aid to the project if all Utahns were to benefit, not just city residents. Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and the Utah League of Cities and Towns (led by Ken Bullock), responded to Lockhart's challenge and constructed a program in which the new hotel will be the vortex of attracting tourism for all areas of the state. Lockhart’s instincts were again correct, and this vision is appealing to conservatives who would normally jettison such legislation. The bill is expected to pass.

(Webb) A great city needs great facilities. We’re losing tourism and convention business for lack of a convention hotel. It is a critical missing piece in Salt Lake City’s quest to become a world-class city. It may be crucial to keeping the big Outdoor Retailers meetings in Utah.

However, existing hotel owners should be treated fairly and their concerns should be taken into account. It’s tough for a privately financed downtown hotel to compete with a big, new facility partly subsidized by the government. The industry is suggesting ways to compromise by limiting tax rebate subsidies to the impact of large, city-wide conventions that couldn’t be accommodated by the smaller hotels. Certainly, common ground can be found providing enough financial support to make a convention hotel viable, while not hurting existing hotels.

Will the Common Core education standards survive the legislative session?

(Pignanelli) Remember, it’s always about the delegates. If lawmakers believe the crop chosen this March (predicted to be more conservative) will be focused on this issue, some action is likely. An interesting development is left-wing organizations are disparaging Common Core, which will strengthen the resolve of critics.

(Webb) The voluntary standards represent a state-based response to the need for U.S. students to be competitive with their international peers in core subjects so they can be successful in the global marketplace. I like the fact that education leaders from many states collaborated in developing the standards. It shows that states can work together to solve problems without interference or mandates from the federal government. It’s a great exercise in federalism, and we need more of it.

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