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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Are Utah's GOP leaders now in jeopardy?

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 6:46 p.m. MDT

For obsessed Utah politicos (like us), the Legislature is the gift that keeps on giving. Legislative action on immigration reform and access to government records continues to dominate political discussions. Tea party activists are angry. The news media are apoplectic over GRAMA reform. We review the ramifications.

Although the national media and local community leaders are praising lawmakers for their immigration package, many arch-conservative activists are angry and threaten to defeat lawmakers who supported the guest worker bill. Other activists on the left and right remain hostile over passage of GRAMA reform. Are Republican legislators' re-elections in jeopardy?

Pignanelli:"Man is the only animal that laughs and has a state legislature." — Samuel Butler. To use the local vernacular, "you betcha" they are in trouble. The delegate system is a Petri dish of mischief, and the immigration legislation provides a fertile ingredient for explosion of noxious bacteria. Tea party activists are aggressively confronting and challenging the most conservative of legislators who supported immigration reform. Their hostility arises because immigration is a litmus test for these ultraconservatives. The immigration solution is supported by a wide variety of Utah's influential business and community leaders. But the power brokers must come to the public aid of these courageous officials now, and in their convention battles, our future lawmakers will pay them little heed.

Webb: Let's put this in perspective. In other states they're slashing budgets, laying off thousands of teachers and legislators are fleeing over state lines. In Utah we're wringing our hands about text messages being made public. Thanks goodness we're in Utah. The reality is that the recent legislative session was extremely successful. Utahns can be proud of the frugal way their lawmakers and governor took care of state business in a very tough economic environment. Mainstream Utahns must not allow either the ultra-right or the special-interest media activists to diminish the success of the session. Utah is governed well, and it's time for mainstream Utahns to stand up for their excellent political leadership.

More legislators are expected to request an immediate repeal of HB477. Could this derail the efforts to develop a compromise for a summer special session?

Pignanelli: Yes, if the momentum among legislators to repeal HB477 continues, there will be little appetite to maintain negotiations for an alternative. Behind the scenes, a number of lawmakers want the issue off the public radar, and that includes any fighting inside a special session. They believe "out of sight" will be out of mind for the public — the best scenario.

Webb: If a consensus builds among legislators to repeal HB477 right away, I assume the governor would be happy to call a special session. This was not a fight he asked for. Legislators clearly made a mistake in ramming the bill through so quickly, and it's unfortunate that this issue has become a negative symbol in what was otherwise a very successful session. GRAMA is a topic worthy of discussion, especially because many privacy concerns need to be addressed. It might surprise an average citizen who might write a very personal message to a public official to have that correspondence appear on the front page of a newspaper. But sorting out what should be private and what should be public is going to require thoughtful discussion.

Gov. Gary Herbert sailed to victory last year, but could he be in for a rough ride in 2012 because of what happened this session?

Pignanelli: The governor has a tough dilemma. The Legislature has adjourned and all the eyes are on him. So far, he has not satisfied lawmakers or the public with his approach to HB477. His courageous approval of the immigration bills has angered conservative organizations. If this frustration continues, right-wing delegates may cause problems for the governor at the 2012 convention.

Webb: Despite the Salt Lake Tribune's front-page, name-calling, personal vendetta against him, Herbert is Utah's most popular politician. His immigration positions are supported by a very high percentage of citizens. Thanks to him, there is time and a process to redraft the GRAMA legislation and reach a reasonable solution. Utah's financial affairs are in order. Utah's economy is poised to boom. Mainstream Utahns would be guilty of criminal neglect if they allow a small cadre of far-right activists to defeat him in convention. He deserves praise, not criticism, and Utah voters will support him in 2012.

Right-wing organizations have filed a referendum to repeal HB477. Can it succeed?

Pignanelli: To place a referendum on the ballot, supporters only need to garner 10 percent of the registered voters in 15 counties (a light obstacle), but within 40 days (a terrible challenge). With the support of larger- and small-town newspapers in rural counties, the enthusiastic activists could very well succeed.

Webb: Not a chance in the world. Gathering nearly 100,000 signatures in such a short time is nearly impossible without an army of paid field staffers. Much larger and better-organized groups have tried and failed.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: 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. E-mail: frankp@xmission.com.

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