The Legislature is reviewing a record number of bills this session, the bulk of them boring to most citizens. But a few issues pique the interest of all: air, alcohol and Affordable Care Act/Medicaid expansion (an abysmal attempt at alliteration).
Air quality tops public interest. Can the Legislature accomplish anything substantive?
Pignanelli: “You can’t move so fast that you try to change the mores faster than people can accept it” — Eleanor Roosevelt. After several shouting matches with family members and others, I can declare discussion of this topic is extremely efficient in cloaking hypocrisy with smug self-righteousness. Any Utahn has the credibility to attack the Herbert administration and the Legislature for “not doing enough” to enhance air quality only if he/she is willing to endure substantial sacrifices and massive changes to his/her lifestyle.
These include a permanent pledge to expend additional hours every day traveling on mass transit, using alternative fuel vehicles, agreeing to tax increases to subsidize public transportation, allowing losses of government services from a smaller tax base, higher unemployment resulting from closure of polluting industries, reducing all non-business travel (no more driving to Jazz games, ski resorts, concerts, etc.), surcharges on students not attending neighborhood schools, and so on. The truly dedicated will attend the March Republican caucuses and elect delegates who share this commitment — ensuring real change will occur.
Until a majority of citizens demand that government impose draconian measures that impact their personal lives, officials will continue attempting softer remedies. So I will be sure to honk and wave when I drive by next year’s clean air rally.
Webb: As I’ve written previously, millions of little daily individual actions (like switching on a light or starting a car) cause our air pollution. Millions of little daily individual actions will be required to clean up the air.
The Salt Lake Chamber Transportation Coalition, in which I participate, is encouraging lawmakers to lift the cap on transit funding, giving county governments authority to ask voters if they want to invest more in public transit. Reps. Johnny Anderson and Joel Briscoe are considering sponsoring such legislation.
To double transit ridership and have a real impact on air quality, transit service must become substantially more convenient and frequent — more stops in more neighborhoods more often, requiring more investment. Lifting the cap on transit funding wouldn’t be a tax increase, or even authorize a vote to increase taxes. But it would be a very simple and effective step the Legislature could take right now toward cleaner air.
Will lawmakers tear down the Zion Curtain (the 7-foot wall required in restaurants to prevent customers from observing the preparation of alcoholic beverages)?
Pignanelli: My life is a living testimony that one can get a drink in Utah. With this important expertise, I understand the need for most regulations (food intake to accompany booze consumption is imperative). Every session, I enjoy the fervent discussions by so many who have never imbibed. Usually, once representatives of the predominant faith make a statement on alcohol, the issue is resolved for the year. But for the first time in decades, many lawmakers are openly bucking this traditional process, and expressing concerns that this wall is burdensome to business and ineffective in its role. A coalition of conservatives and Democrats may push legislation to “dismantle the curtain” through the House — but it will die in the Senate.
Webb: The value (if any) of the wall in discouraging drink is more than offset by the “weirdness” (Speaker Rebecca Lockhart’s term) factor that hurts convention/tourism business and Utah’s image. Tear down this wall.
What happens with Medicaid expansion?
Pignanelli: Regardless of differences between Gov. Gary Herbert and Speaker Lockhart on the issue, there is a perception that GOP delegates do not favor expansion. Thus, I predict Medicaid is enhanced in the summer after the caucuses and party conventions have concluded.
Webb: The really hard decision is whether to accept hundreds of millions of federal dollars for a Utah version of Medicaid expansion, and over the long-term commit more state tax dollars to Medicaid, so tens of thousands more low-income people can obtain medical services.
On the question of accepting federal funds, Gov. Herbert rightly notes that we’re all paying the taxes, whether to state government or the federal government. So why not get our fair share back from federal coffers? Refusing the funds won’t reduce federal borrowing and will mean many low-income Utahns go without medical services.
On the other hand, is it wise to expand a program that is already in serious long-term financial trouble, considering future liabilities?
The real long-term solution is restoration of balanced federalism so a limited amount of tax dollars goes to the federal government for limited purposes, and the bulk of tax revenue stays in the states. Then solutions for crucial societal challenges like health care, education and poverty could be crafted at the state level.
Unfortunately, we’re a million miles from balanced federalism, and drifting further away every minute. So the practical solution is to obtain waivers and develop the most responsible Utah expansion program possible, and take back at least some of the tax dollars we’re sending to the federal government.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org. 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@example.com.