With only eight working days to go and much work ahead, the Legislature is hurtling down the home stretch. Among the questions buzzing at session's end are these:
Sen. Chris Buttars' unfortunate statements continue to generate headlines. Will this issue continue, and can Buttars survive?
Pignanelli: For most men, providing a heartfelt sincere public apology is similar to undergoing a comprehensive physical examination: demeaning, painful and exposure of vulnerability. But both activities are necessary for continued physical and social well-being. Many politicos who have known Chris Buttars for decades and admire his work with thousands of Utah youths acknowledge that he did not intend a racial slur during his speech regarding tax equalization.
Had the West Jordan senator held a press conference expressing remorse for a poor choice of words, apologized repeatedly thereafter and refrained from labeling his attackers, the whole matter would have subsided in several days. Unfortunately, his apology (or at least the process of making it) did not meet the expectations now demanded of 21st century officials. Senate leadership has been quietly effective in preventing the whole matter from blowing up into a national publicity nightmare. (They dissuaded the senator and Eagle Forum from holding a rally last week akin to dumping a tanker of gasoline on a campfire.) Buttars will remain in office and could win re-election. But his effectiveness at the Capitol remains a question. Buttars should meet with African-American leaders in full view of the media. Only then will his political prowess, and deserved reputation for improving the lives of so many Utahns, be protected.
Webb: I can't judge what is in Buttars' heart, so I take him at his word that he did not mean to be bigoted or racially insensitive. Buttars clearly could use a little sensitivity training and further study his political correctness manual. What came out of his mouth may not have been intentional, but it was hurtful.
Buttars also hasn't quite gotten the apology thing down. He is a fighter, so after his initial mea culpa, he quickly reverted to his feisty self, when he should have continued to take his lumps and show remorse, humility and regret.
The senator may have a heart of gold and pure love for all of God's children. But in politics perception is as important as reality, and he hasn't adequately dealt with the perception. Buttars is going to have to work very hard to retain his seat. He will likely face opposition within his party and a strong Democratic challenger if he wins the nomination.
I agree with some of my conservative friends who note that an unfortunate double standard exists here. As we lament Buttars' comments, we should also condemn the blatantly and violently racist and misogynistic rap music lyrics that seem to be tolerated in elite circles.
The latest revenue projections predict a much smaller surplus. Are the promised tax cuts and teacher salary increases in danger?
Pignanelli: A number of lawmakers are worried that tax cuts and teacher salary increases in 2008 could build an automatic problem for the 2010 budget year when the economy could be worse. However, history demonstrates that because of the current surplus, there will likely be some relief to taxpayers and a bonus to teachers.
Webb: Teachers should, and likely will, receive their promised pay boost (along with some needed reform like differential pay and extended school years). No one is clamoring for a major tax cut, so there will be little disappointment if it doesn't materialize.
Even with enormous budget surpluses the last few years, lawmakers have been frugal and wise in their spending, devoting a lot of new revenue to one-time expenditures in transportation and rainy day funds. Thus, Utah will weather any downturn in much better shape than most states. We may not get a lot of new programs, but we likely will not have to cut deeply into base budgets.
This was predicted to be the health care session. Is anything actually going to happen?
Pignanelli: Notwithstanding all the wonderful speeches by presidential candidates and local health-care gurus, a true comprehensive change to the medical delivery system is a messy and extraordinarily tough endeavor. Lawmakers Dave Clark, Jim Dunnigan, Rhonda Menlove, Sheldon Killpack and Mike Morley are slogging just to make incremental modifications. An internal battle is escalating over who will serve on the task force that Clark is creating to overhaul health care in Utah. The media and academics will likely pooh-pooh anything that does happen, but insiders know that the advocates for change have suffered bruises to advance just inches toward the goal.Webb: Legislation this session, including establishment of the task force, is a terrific first step in comprehensive health system reform. Given all the preliminary work, the task force can immediately focus on substance. It should start with actual bill drafts; no need to talk philosophy for six months. Consumers and the broad health care community should demand major forward progress this year, leading to the 2009 session.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Webb was policy deputy to former Gov. Mike Leavitt and a Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a Utah state tax commissioner. E-mail: email@example.com.