Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Legislative all-stars: How our elected players performed

Published: Sunday, March 16 2014 6:40 p.m. MDT

The Utah State Capitol shines against the Salt Lake Valley, Thursday, March 14, 2013.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

Editor’s note: Webb is out of the country this week, so Pignanelli has written this column solo.

The legislative session ended last week, just in time for Utahns to focus on what is important — basketball. In keeping with this theme, we analyze how our elected players performed:

Coach of the year: Senate President Wayne Niederhauser provided tremendous leadership, extracting excellence from his team with few words. Niederhauser is on a trajectory of commanding bipartisan statewide respect.

MVP of the year: Rep. Jim Dunnigan is the all-time scoring forward who executed in the most important tasks of the season: serving as chairman of the Health Care Task Force, chairman of the House Investigation Committee and chairman of Business Labor Committee; spearheading ethics reform, streamlining government regulations, etc. The Legislature succeeded because of Dunnigan’s hard work and insightful actions.

Outstanding league/conference commissioner: Gov. Gary Herbert subtly guided action on the floor. He deftly used the threat of technical fouls (“veto”) to direct plays in the Count My Vote and technology initiatives. Politicos concur the session benefited the governor’s already robust reputation.

Flop: The session began with the expectation of a gas tax increase, but most lawmakers took the intentional fall to avoid this in an election year.

Cinderella story: Few politicos expected health insurance mandate coverage for autism to gain traction. Yet, after hard work by sponsor Sen. Brian Shiozawa and advocates, the bill flew out of the Senate, forcing insurance companies into a compromise. Even House conservatives joined the cause to ensure final passage.

Loudest fans: “Autism Speaks” is the brilliant advocacy organization that shrewdly targeted legislators with heartbreaking tales from neighbors. Its success is a colossal reminder that the process works and lawmakers will listen.

Toughest coach: Speaker Rebecca Lockhart started the game fast and rough, building a strong lead. But she could not rally in the fourth quarter to fend off a full-court press against her modernization proposal. The retiring “Iron Lady” will long be remembered for her tenacity.

Air ball: Medicaid expansion never got close to the rim. But expect another shot in special session later in the year.

Utah’s Washington Generals: Democrats often resemble this stalwart — but always losing — team that plays the Harlem Globetrotters. They try hard, but the outcome is predictable.

Halftime entertainment: The posturing, chest-thumping, bragging, threatening and great bluffing in the Count My Vote storm was great fun to watch.

Best clutch player: Sen. Curt Bramble, in the tradition of Utah Jazz legend Karl Malone, delivers every session on dozens of issues. Most notably, his alternative to CMV forced a discussion between warring parties.

Power forward: Rep. Francis Gibson excelled as a screen to advance House leadership projects.

Loose ball: The “Zion Curtain” bounced around the court, but no one was able to play with it.

Feistiest defensive players: Democrats Rep. Brian King, Sen. Karen Mayne and Sen. Jim Dabakis never failed to push back against right-wing rhetoric.

Scouting report: Sens. Deidre Henderson and Todd Weiler are future contenders for Senate leadership.

Sharpest elbows: Rep. Mike McKell’s sense of humor and intense cross-examination style was fun to watch (unless you were the recipient).

Top rebounder: Rep. Greg Hughes surpasses others at snatching progressive issues (i.e. clean air, social impact bonds, etc.) and transforming them into conservative causes.

Best layup: Sen. Steve Urquhart’s mission-based funding mechanism for higher education is adding points to state objectives.

Best general manager: Although quiet in manner, Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund led his caucus with dignity. We wish him a speedy recovery.

Key fundamentals: Rep. Brad Last demonstrated that the important qualities of listening, understanding and humility reside in the best public servants. Rep. Curt Oda reminds us a smile and sense of humor is imperative.

Perennial all-star: Rep. Mel Brown (a former high school coach) maintained a firm grip (as befits a dairy farmer) on budget maneuvers as appropriations chairman.

Deadball: Activists on either side of the same-sex marriage debate desperately wanted legislation. But legislative managers refused to play, thereby avoiding an Arizona-style debacle.

Swingmen: Rep. Don Ipson and Sen. David Hinkins are important assets to the team — businessmen who provide real-world perspectives.

Center: Majority Leader Brad Dee excelled at pivoting and passing to members.

Jump ball: With the departure of Lockhart, a number of players are ready to pounce for House leadership: Dee, Hughes, Gibson, Dunnigan and Ipson.

Timeout: All players made the effort to deal with the Swallow investigation in a bipartisan and deliberative manner then passed the needed legislation to prevent future problems.

Best sixth man: Respected lawyer Rep. Lowry Snow was repeatedly pulled from the bench on numerous matters.

Shooting guards: Sen. Jerry Stevenson and Rep. Brad Wilson look and act the part in scoring on budgetary matters.

Fast break: Transportation gurus Sens. Stuart Adams and Wayne Harper kept the lanes open.

Point guards: Rules chairmen Sen. John Valentine and Rep. Dean Sanpei controlled the flow of the game.

Fade away: Sen. Pat Jones made another courageous attempt for creative funding of public education in her last session. This voice of reason will be missed.

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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