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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: What will Herbert do with this hot potato of a bill?

Published: Sunday, March 18 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Utah legislative sessions are rather like convenience store hotdogs — a few bites of enjoyment, but the aftertaste lingers on and on. The 2012 session ended several days ago, but the aroma clings to the governor's office. Here are our thoughts on two hot topics in political circles, along with an update on the presidential primaries.

The Legislature dumped a hot potato in the lap of Gov. Gary Herbert in the form of HB363, the sex education legislation. Although few people have actually read the bill, almost everyone has an opinion. What are the election year political ramifications of Herbert signing or vetoing the bill?

Pignanelli: "Things you refuse to meet today always come back at you later on, usually under circumstances which make the decision twice as difficult as it originally was." — Eleanor Roosevelt Utahns should pity Gov. Herbert. Last year, he waded through the political swamp of HB477 and immigration. This year was looking brighter, then the Legislature dumped this mess on him. Serious political consequences surround the governor. A veto guarantees heartburn with far-right GOP activists and the emotional potential to propel one of Herbert's intraparty opponents into a primary. Herbert will eventually prevail, but no incumbent wants the hassle and expense of a primary. Should the governor not veto, he will enjoy a nice convention and a primary-free summer. However, this will stymie his fundraising efforts with moderates frustrated at right-wing antics. Furthermore, political and media observers will comment throughout the year that he surrendered to the right-wing. His Democratic opponent, Peter Cook, will continuously harass him for failing to lead.

Yet, political opportunities exist for the governor. Every day, my children — as with thousands of Utah children — are bombarded with sexual innuendo through hundreds of television channels, Internet sites, social networking, downloadable videos, etc. We parents cannot be with our kids every moment to offer practical counseling. Most Utahns (as reflected in a BYU poll) desire common sense assistance from the schools our children attend. A Herbert veto will tap into this quiet majority — which is much broader than the narrow base pushing him otherwise.

Webb: This is a tough one for Herbert, as it would be for any governor. But it's not politically fatal. Herbert has a reservoir of goodwill and support, and he'll be fine whether he signs or vetoes. Since the issue definitely cuts both ways (vetoing might hurt him among some conservative delegates, but allowing it to become law might hurt him among independents in the general election), Herbert should just do what he personally thinks is right. He's going to expend some political capital in this one, but he has plenty to invest.

I'm really not sure what terrible problem the Legislature was trying to solve by passing HB363. I didn't detect any great groundswell of outrage over the way sex education was being handled in Utah schools, especially with 90 percent of parents opting to have their children participate in current programs. But lawmakers did what they did, and the buck stops with the governor. Herbert should listen to both sides, make his decision, explain his reasoning — and deal with the consequences. Success in politics means having 50 percent support, plus one. Herbert will do just fine.

A number of key legislators have announced their retirements — either to return to private life or to seek higher office. Is this a trend or just election-year fatigue?

Pignanelli: Technology and population growth are increasing the demands on part-time lawmakers, preventing them from fulfilling career and family obligations. Thus, the state will lose some of the best people who ever served it: Todd Kiser, Karen Morgan, David Litvack, John Dougall, Mike Morley, Ross Romero.

Webb: Seldom have I seen so much tumult and jockeying for political positions. The number of retirements and the number of incumbents being challenged is quite remarkable. It is a time of agitation in Utah politics, complete with both disillusionment about the ability of government — especially the federal government — to solve problems and a feeling of urgency to run and make a difference. Redistricting has also encouraged retirement, while also creating opportunities for those waiting for a chance.

Despite eating grits — and proclaiming he enjoyed it — Utah favorite adopted son Mitt Romney was thumped in the Mississippi and Alabama primaries. Was it just a Mormon thing or something deeper?

Pignanelli: The LDS issue is not the biggest challenge for Romney. Indeed, if Mitt would act like most Mormons I interact and live with, he would have already secured the nomination. Romney's attitude and lack of understanding for others — not his faith — is the strongest barrier to popular acceptance.

Webb: Romney remains on track to win the nomination, and his religion isn't going to be a major factor. Despite the two losses, Romney has actually increased his delegate lead over Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. The primaries ahead are more favorable for him. The tough primary season has made Romney a better and stronger candidate, but it's unfortunate he is being pushed so far to the right. In the general election, Romney must win support of independents, moderates and Hispanics, and the long primary prevents him from appealing to those groups. However, President Barack Obama remains an unpopular and deeply flawed president, and Romney still has a reasonable chance of winning.

< class="end-note-text">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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