The Utah Legislature in its recent session accomplished a number of very important things for Utah. It also laid a foundation for some critical future action.
Along with Gov. Gary Herbert, our 104 part-time, citizen lawmakers, who come from all walks of life, are to be commended for efficiently and proactively taking care of the state’s pressing needs in a short, well-organized 45-day session.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and House Speaker Greg Hughes managed the session well and, with their leadership teams, successfully dealt with Utah’s top priorities.
The U.S. Congress could learn a great deal from Utah’s Legislature about working collaboratively and in a bipartisan manner to solve major problems. Democratic legislators sponsored important bills and contributed to the session’s success.
Certainly, the Legislature left some important work unfinished, including tax reform and education funding (more on those topics in a future column). But it made enough progress that a path forward can be seen. No session solves every problem, and no one is ever completely satisfied with the final work product.
But the Legislature balanced the state budget, provided funding for critical programs, and governed in a manner that allows the free market to work so businesses can flourish and create jobs in Utah.
Key accomplishments included:
— Helping homeless people. The Legislature supported Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County in dealing with the homeless issue, which has reached crisis proportions in downtown Salt Lake City. Lawmakers provided direction and some $30 million in various forms of funding for homeless resource centers and affordable housing. A great deal of difficult work remains, but a foundation is in place to make a real difference in the lives of fellow citizens needing help.
— Education down payment. While education needs substantially more funding, the Legislature invested 80 percent of new revenue in the education of our young people, some $240 million in new money with $68 million of that amount devoted to pay for enrollment growth. The value of the weighted pupil unit was increased 4 percent, which could translate to meaningful salary increases, depending on local school district decisions. Higher education was also treated well in the session.
— Liquor law modernization. Rep. Brad Wilson and Sen. Jerry Stevenson deserve credit for substantial progress on improving Utah’s liquor laws. They worked to strike a balance between responsible drinking and protecting citizens and young people from alcohol abuse.
— Transportation task force and bonding. The Legislature created a new task force to analyze transportation governance and funding. This will become an important opportunity to move transportation funding toward more user fees, like the fuel tax, rather than using general fund money. Lawmakers also approved a substantial transportation bond, which continues Utah’s smart use of bonding to take advantage of low interest rates and to improve mobility to keep Utah’s economy humming.
— Business regulation. The Legislature also produced some positive regulatory reform with HB272, sponsored by Rep. Brad Wilson and Sen. Daniel Hemmert. The bill requires analysis and evaluation to determine the regulatory impact of new legislation and rules to minimize negative fiscal impacts on small businesses and citizens.
— Air quality. The Legislature provided incentives for Utah’s refiners to produce cleaner fuel, which could have a significant impact on Wasatch Front air quality. Lawmakers also created a new Air Quality Policy Advisory Board, sponsored by Rep. Timothy Hawkes and Sen. Todd Weiler. The board will be comprised of a wide spectrum of government representatives and business, industry and community interests to identify legislative action to improve air quality.
All in all, Utahns should be pleased with their Legislature’s performance.
A. Scott Anderson is CEO and president of Zions Bank.