Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Will there be tax increases for education in Utah?

Published: Sunday, April 7 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Utah State Capitol shines against the Salt Lake Valley during the final day of legislature  in Salt Lake City  Thursday, March 14, 2013.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) The Utah State Capitol shines against the Salt Lake Valley during the final day of legislature in Salt Lake City Thursday, March 14, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Spring break is over and the Easter bunny has crawled back into his hole. Thus, your columnists are no longer distracted and can focus on the topics of the week.

State Sen. Aaron Osmond made headlines recently when he said he is one Republican who is willing to consider raising taxes for education. Is Osmond committing political suicide, or does he reflect a general willingness to consider tax increases for important purposes like education?

Pignanelli: "There is no such thing as a good tax." — Winston Churchill

Sen. Osmond is a sunny, charismatic conservative well-known for including all perspectives in creating bipartisan innovations to maximize efficiency and quality in government and public education. Thus, he could be in big trouble in the darker corners of the GOP (where the real nasty spiders lurk), who despise such statesmanlike conduct. The extremists on the right and on the left (as I note below) prefer leaders that are snarling curmudgeons unwilling to compromise. These stalwarts dominate Utah's antediluvian delegate/convention system and will likely grumble about Osmond.

The senator believes Utahns will support increased resources for public education if the money is targeted to the classroom and there is tough scrutiny and accountability to ensure the money is spent wisely. This is a correct analysis of the average Utahn. Too bad the average Utahn does not select political party nominees. Those ornery delegates determine the fate of Utah's politicians and the Republican ilk are hostile to any tax hike. Legislators know this and will not pursue "revenue enhancements" anytime soon.

Webb: As an old guy who's been around Utah politics for 40 years, I was proud of Sen. Osmond. It's the most courageous position I've seen any major politician take for a long time. Utah needs a healthy, thoughtful discussion about taxes and whether we're properly funding key services that are within the proper role of government.

For many years, the notion of raising taxes has been so taboo among Republicans that it couldn't be discussed in polite company. It's time for citizens to tell their elected officials that they want this debate.

Here's the reality on taxes: Over the past couple of decades, Utah political leaders have (in most cases appropriately) cut taxes over and over again as our economy has produced healthy revenues. So Utah's overall tax burden has declined dramatically. In 1988, according to the Tax Foundation, Utah's tax burden was sixth highest in the country. In 2010, our tax burden was 29th in the country, and it's likely even lower today. So our tax effort is less, and we're paying proportionately less in taxes.

Meanwhile, education performance is in crisis, and young people today will not achieve the educational attainment of their parents — in a competitive global environment where education makes the difference between success and failure. Yes, it's time to talk about taxes.

Thomas Wright will not seek re-election as state Republican Party chair. What are the ramifications for the Utah Republican Party?

Pignanelli: Wright was an incredible leader who utilized 21st century technology in promoting conservative values while denying Democrats opportunities (darn him). He refused to just enjoy Republican dominance and recruited excellent candidates for state offices. Wright will be missed, and his replacement should indicate where the Utah GOP is heading. Some potential contenders include former state senator Dan Liljenquist, former representative Morgan Philpot and campaign technology expert Michelle Scharf.

Democrats are hoping current party Secretary Drew Chamberlain is chosen. Chamberlain sued his own party, wants to eliminate public education and publishes uncharitable insults about the first lady. "Chairman Chamberlain" or someone of similar style will drive election victories in 2014 ... to the Democrats.

Webb: Wright will be missed. He has been a terrific party builder, encouraging broad participation and working with all factions of the party. If the wrong person is elected as party chair, a grave danger exists that the party will go backward, reinforcing the old image that the party is controlled by right-wing insider elitists who really don't want broader participation and who want to control the nominating process because they think they are smarter and more knowledgeable than other citizens.

James Dabakis is both state Democratic chair and a state senator. Was his head big enough to wear both hats in the last legislative session, and is he likely to continue in both roles?

Pignanelli: Legislative observers are giving Dabakis high marks for his first session. He reprises in public how the Republicans warmed to him and of his fondness for their graciousness. This statesmanship is appreciated by mature adults but is antagonizing the lefties — who prefer a grenade thrower for party leader. So he is now dropping the bombs, to the consternation of his legislative colleagues. Dabakis has decided to seek the party chairmanship for another term, but he will soon learn (as I did after my first term) that success in one position jeopardizes achievements in the other.

Webb: After criticizing Gov. Gary Herbert regarding the Snake Valley water issue, Dabakis sent out a message declaring "victory" for Democrats when Herbert declined to sign the Nevada agreement. So, as usual, Dabakis turns an important public policy issue into cheap-shot, partisan talking points. Dabakis wants people to believe he can be a reasonable state senator supporting good public policy, while also bashing Republicans in highly partisan and often unfair tones. He can't have it both ways.

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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