Today marks the two-year anniversary of the passage of SB 296, the so-called “Utah Compromise,” a law that was rightly praised as a landmark legislative collaboration, simultaneously protecting LGBT citizens from discrimination while preserving essential principles of religious freedom.
The law was the product of good-faith efforts from both Republicans and Democrats as well as those from the religious and LGBT communities. It represents the best of what can be accomplished when competing interests are willing to listen to each other and set aside rhetoric to find workable solutions.
At the close of the 2017 legislative session, with sizable issues related to education and tax reform being pushed off to the next session, it’s worth reflecting on the principles present in the Utah Compromise and how they might be marshaled yet again to tackle some of Utah’s most pressing long-term problems.
Education: There is increasing pressure for the state to spend more on education to improve schools and retain quality teachers. Some would like to see an increase in income tax to fund such initiatives, while others believe dollars should come from other funding sources.
Teachers, administrators, school reformers, researchers and politicians on both sides of the aisle should now spend the rest of the year discussing in good faith the best ways to boost student performance and retain the state’s best teachers and then design a tax plan that can help support and fund those goals.
Could the 2018 legislative session begin with a reasonable plan in hand that attacks the problem and is satisfactory to the constituents and business leaders pressing the issue?
That should be the goal.
Public Lands: We also think these principles of listening, finding common ground and being willing to achieve wins for all sides can help solve the state’s long-standing controversy over public lands.
Few issues have been more divisive than that of public land use, particularly in Utah, where nearly two-thirds of all state land is owned by the federal government. Environmentalists view much of that land as sacred, insisting that it remain largely untouched by private developers. Those same developers, however, counter with arguments that there is a great deal of public land that could responsibly be put to use for the economic benefit of Utah’s citizens. These opposing positions have made it difficult for either side to find common ground and have left the fate of public lands in limbo for decades.
It would be wise, then, for lawmakers to look to SB 296 as evidence that even the most intractable issues can be resolved if opposing camps are committed to working together to achieve workable outcomes for both sides. When it comes to public lands, there is even a bipartisan precedent.
Back in 2009, then-Sen. Bob Bennett, a Republican, produced a Washington County Lands Bill that artfully balanced the concerns of both environmentalists and developers. He did so in cooperation with then-Rep. Jim Matheson, a Democrat. Bennett hoped “to take (this bill) from just the one county and see if we can't find a sensible resolution throughout all of Utah.” Eight years later, that has yet to happen. Perhaps it’s time to revisit that bill as a catalyst to forge a new and broader compromise.
Of course, LGBT rights, religious freedom, education, tax reform and public lands are vastly different policy discussions. But the fact that Utah has been able to demonstrate progress in some of these areas in the past ought to be inspiring to those yearning for sensible solutions from their elected officials. In honor of the second anniversary of this trailblazing bill, lawmakers ought to take fresh inspiration to begin the process of solving more problems that skeptics view as unsolvable.