As the Legislature begins its second half, here's our take on some of the big issues being addressed.
Air pollution continues to be an enormous — and very difficult — issue in Utah. Can the Legislature do more to improve air quality?
Pignanelli: "It isn't pollution that's harming the environment. It's the impurities in our air and water that are doing it." — Dan Quayle
This session prompted many legislative responses to Utah's winter inversion nightmare. Republicans Jack Draxler and Lowry Snow were first out of the gates with their clean fuel tax credit incentives. Democrats followed up with a well-publicized package of bills. Rep. Patrice Arent wishes to require state agencies' reduction of polluting activities. Rep. Joel Briscoe is requesting appropriation for Utah Transit Authority passes in January and July. Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck wants the flexibility to impose regulations more stringent than the Environmental Protection Agency when applicable. Urging industries to use the best available technology to scrub emissions is the hope of Rep. Lynn Hemingway. Rep. Greg Hughes, as UTA chair, successfully pushed the purchase of many natural-gas powered buses — an action that will reduce pollution.
These are all wonderful well-intentioned reactions to the cruddy air we breathe every winter. But similar to years past, as the momentum for change reaches its highest levels, the weather warms and the Legislature adjourns. Any thoughts of public transportation are buried under the dreams of cruising the SUV down the freeway with the sun roof open. (I can't wait to clean the salt off my Jeep and push the new speed limits.) Our way of life is not changing soon.
Webb: Here's something quick and simple the Legislature could do that would make a real difference: Authorize a ballot measure so voters could decide whether or not to expand the public transit system on the Wasatch Front, thus increasing frequency of buses and trains so that more people would ride public transit.
I do some work with the Utah Mobility Coalition, sponsored by the Salt Lake Chamber, which has endorsed the state's Unified Transportation Plan. That plan anticipates allowing citizens to vote on a ballot measure sometime in the next few years, raising additional revenue to improve transit service.
The Legislature could simply speed up that timeline, either placing a proposal on the ballot, or giving counties authority to do so. The Legislature would not be raising a tax but simply giving citizens an opportunity to decide themselves if they want enhanced transit service to reduce air pollution. Public transit in Utah has always been funded by citizens voting at the ballot box.
If voters are concerned about dirty air and believe that public transit can make a difference, they could vote to expand and increase frequency of service. It would be a simple action for the Legislature to take, but it could be a big step forward.
Will lawmakers be able to pass a balanced budget with so much uncertainty in Washington about federal spending?
Pignanelli: There is plenty of bold talk by officials to the effect of, "I hope the sequestration happens. The federal government needs the discipline." Thus, a self-fulfilled prophecy of short-term sequestration will occur after the session concludes. Lawmakers are well aware of this possibility and will build a traditional budget and then a contingency budget should the bottom fall out and Utah's $500 million surplus converts into a $300 million deficit.
Webb: The Legislature will know the amount of end-of-February sequestration cuts in time to pass a revamped state budget. But uncertainty will undoubtedly continue as Congress squabbles. Utah lawmakers are wise to put contingency plans in place and prepare for the day when federal spending declines significantly.
Government still works in Utah and many other states. Tough decisions are made. Budgets are balanced. A proper balance is struck between what government should and should not do. But in Washington, government is broke, dysfunctional and way out of balance. It can't even accomplish the things it should be doing, like immigration, let alone the myriad programs that should have been left to the states.
Does it make sense to move the Utah State Prison to make way for a high-tech business corridor?
Pignanelli: For years, Utahns visited Draper only on school field trips to the prison (The inmates' "straight talk" didn't work on me). The Draper facility has four decades of operational life before massive upgrades or a move is required. But the prison is a 700-acre roadblock in the middle of a high-technology corridor, an important feature of our expanding economy. State officials are shrewdly developing plans to utilize the property for economic development and using the proceeds to build a new correctional facility without burdening the taxpayers. I am one of many lobbyists with clients interested in the project — a clear signal this endeavor will be high profile for years to come.
Webb: The northern Utah County/southern Salt Lake County high-tech corridor is already attracting some of the biggest technology companies in the world. This is a big deal for jobs and economic development. The prison should be moved, but the process of selecting developers and vendors must be transparent and fair, without any taint of insider influence.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: [email protected]. 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: [email protected]