Governing Magazine announced this week that Utah Sen. Dan Liljenquist, R-Bountiful, is one of nine leaders who will be recognized as the top state and local government officials in the United States in 2011. This is a well-deserved honor for Liljenquist, whose leadership in pension and Medicaid reform plans promises to keep Utah solvent during difficult times, but it also is indicative of a greater, and little appreciated, truth. Utah's Legislature, generally speaking, acts responsibly and makes good decisions.
That thought will come as a surprise to many Utahns who have become accustomed to making jokes about the state's chief legislative body. It is important to remember, however, that most of the unusual bills that get a lot of media attention, such as one last session that would have allowed people to shoot feral cats, never make it into law. And while some inadvisable bills do pass, lawmakers have shown a commendable resilience in the face of public outrage. Such was the case this year when they passed HB477, a bill that would have narrowed public access to some government records. After it met with protests, lawmakers quickly repealed the bill.
The greater, and less noticed, accomplishments of the Legislature and the governor's office are that they have managed to navigate budget deficits brought on by the recession while imposing a minimum of pain. Tough times such as these inevitably leave their mark. Important government services have been curtailed by a lack of funding. But Utah has managed to take care of long-term systemic problems in ways that make other states envious.
The magazine cites Liljenquist's public employee pension reform plan, which passed the Legislature in 2010. When the stock market tumbled in 2008, it set the state's pension funds on a road to ruin. Those funds had assumed earnings of 7.75 percent but instead took a loss of 22.3 percent. Even when the fund rebounded in 2009, it wasn't nearly enough to correct the course.
Liljenquist sponsored two bills. One ended the practice of retiring from public service and then being hired back at a lower wage, allowing both a pension and a salary. The other changed the retirement plans for newly hired workers from a defined pension to a defined-contribution plan, greatly reducing the state's contributions each year.
It is important to note, however, that lawmakers listened carefully to all sides in this debate and made numerous changes to these bills before passing them.
This year, Liljenquist sponsored a bill to tame another runaway fiscal train — Medicaid. The state's obligations toward that program had doubled from 9 percent to 18 percent of state funds in 10 years. With The Affordable Care Act, they were forecasted to grow to 46 percent of the state budget by 2020. The bill, which passed unanimously after much legislative debate, would turn Medicaid into an integrated managed care system in Utah. It also would tie the program's growth to the growth of state revenues.
That plan still awaits approval from the Obama administration, which must grant waivers in order for it to legally proceed.
It should not escape notice, however, that both these plans were passed with bipartisan support after sincere deliberations. That kind of cooperation is becoming all too rare in the nation's current political climate.