HB116 showdown will reveal who controls Utah GOP

Published: Sunday, June 12 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

This Saturday, a high-stakes showdown will occur between the Republican political establishment and far-right delegates at the Republican State Convention. The focal point is a resolution demanding repeal of HB116, the immigration reform legislation providing guest worker status. We explore the ramifications.

What's at stake in this fight?

Pignanelli: "America was indebted to immigration for her settlement and prosperity. That part of America which had encouraged them most advanced most rapidly in population, agriculture and the arts."

— James Madison

(yes, THE James Madison)

At the risk of pushing overreaching flamboyant rhetoric (a risk I undertake hourly), the debate over HB116 is a fight for the heart, soul and future of the Utah Republican Party. Traditional mainstream GOP leaders — credited for the "Best Managed State" in the country and stable economy — crafted the nationally renowned immigration legislation. The bill is sensitive to the concerns of local business and the needs of impoverished immigrants while providing security and basic safeguards. Right-wing and left-wing extremists hate the plan, which is clear evidence of its fairness.

Granted, federal law may pre-empt significant portions of HB116. But the bill was more than just technical statutory language. HB116 sent a message to the country that conservative Republicans were willing to develop a practical, state-based, solution to the immigration problem — without all the nasty rhetoric. As a result, politicos and media across the country fawned over the "Utah Plan."

If the resolution passes, it's clear tea party activists have a firm grip on the Utah GOP and are willing to abandon its legacy of effective governance. Failure of the resolution is a signal gray matter still matters inside the Republican Party. Saturday afternoon will determine how Utahns and the rest of America view local conservatives.

Webb: The outcome will show who's in charge of Utah politics — the far-right wing of the Republican Party, or mainstream Republicans conservatives who represent the vast majority of Utah citizens. The convention fight is a microcosm of a much bigger struggle. It's entirely possible that the far right may win this battle, but lose the war, because mainstream citizens and leaders are becoming very tired of the angry right-wing minority using the caucus-convention system to thwart good public policy supported by most Utahns. At some point, the establishment gets organized and strikes back.

Does the LDS Church REALLY support HB116?

Webb: The LDS Church could not be more explicit in supporting the package of immigration-related bills that passed in this year's legislative session, including HB116. Anyone who suggests otherwise doesn't understand plain English, is playing games or is flat out lying. Like other mainstream citizens, leaders and organizations, the LDS Church supports HB116 because it is symbolic of all that is great about Utah: the legislation is innovative, courageous and demands accountability, while being fair and compassionate when warranted. It tries to solve a big problem and makes it easier for law enforcement to go after real criminals. It will reduce identity theft and reduce fraudulent use of Medicaid, Social Security and welfare services. It will bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows, keep track of them, require background checks, make them accountable to law and order and require them to pay a penalty. It's good, old-fashioned Utah ingenuity and common-sense. It's showing the rest of the country how to stop ignoring this issue and actually resolve it.

These are all reasons the LDS Church has fully and publicly embraced HB116 and clearly opposes any attempts to repeal it. Utahns should be proud of HB116.

Pignanelli: A substantial portion of LDS members lives in Spanish-speaking countries or has a Hispanic ethnic background. Further, thousands of former missionaries lived in these areas and have a fondness for the people and their culture.

Thus, the state of Utah, which contains the world headquarters of the LDS Church, cannot be a source of inflammatory rhetoric that disparages Latinos. Various church leaders, with implied authorization of the highest levels, have expressed public support for HB 116. Should the resolution pass, the Church will need to send a stronger message that Utah must not adopt Arizona-style legislation.

Will this controversy spill over into the 2012 Legislature and even the 2012 elections?

Pignanelli: Regardless of what happens on Saturday, activists will push for repeal in the next legislative session. They will also take their cause to the precinct caucus delegate elections in March 2012. This issue will color local politics for the next 18 months.

Webb: The repeal crowd will target for defeat in 2012 solid, mainstream conservatives who support HB116. That's why it's time for mainstream conservatives to engage in the political process and not allow the far right to control Utah politics. If the repeal resolution passes in Saturday's convention, it will be a clear demonstration of how out-of-touch right-wing delegates are with the majority of mainstream Utahns, in addition to top business, political and religious leaders.

Most Utahns — business leaders, political leaders, religious leaders and think tanks and non-profits — are mainstream, conservative, practical, problem-solving people. If we allow a small minority of vocal arch-conservatives to control Utah politics, then shame on us.

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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