SALT LAKE CITY — If a group of accomplished Utah retirees had its way, voters would approve the Our Schools Now initiative, state lawmakers would pass full Medicaid expansion and people would stop buying gas-guzzling SUVs.
The Utah Citizens' Counsel would also maintain criminal background checks for all gun purchases, get a stronger hate crimes law on the books, increase the minimum wage and stop Republican legislators from gerrymandering voting districts.
Those recommendations and others were part of its 4th annual assessment of progress — or lack thereof — on public policies it believes would advance human rights. The group's report is called “Standing Up For Utah's Needs.”
The nonpartisan panel is made up of mostly moderate Republican and moderate Democrat retirees with experience in many public policy areas. Members do their own research, which is well-documented in the extensive report.
Several of the group's suggestions are issues legislative Democrats have proposed for years with little success.
"Sometimes they will align with what the Democrats are trying to do. Sometimes they align with what the half a dozen Republicans in the Legislature are really trying to do. But we see them as good centrist positions that would help solve problems," said Dixie Huefner, a former University of Utah professor in special education law.
John Bennion, a retired public school superintendent, said the group "strongly" supports the ballot initiative to raise the state income tax rate from 5 percent to 5.45 percent and state sales tax rate from 4.7 percent to 5.15 percent to generate $700 million for public schools.
"People tend to get what they pay for, and although money isn't everything, it's a lot," he said, citing the need to reverse Utah's low per-student spending, teacher shortage and high teacher turnover rate.
Bennion said it's not just educators who support the initiative but business leaders who see better-educated students as a means to growing and attracting new companies.
Andy Schoenberg, a retired U. bioengineering professor, noted that Utah's population is on course to double by 2065, which will have a significant impact on air quality and global warming.
SUV and light truck sales in Utah represented 67 percent of all new cars sold in 2016 and reached 70 percent in the first half of this year, he said, citing Utah Tax Commission Data.
"Those things don’t get 30 miles to gallon. Some of them get below 20," said Schoenberg, who drives a solar-powered electric car. "That does not speak well for us being able to clean up the environment."
He suggested state lawmakers impose a "pollution fee" for high-emission vehicles and restore tax incentives for low-emission and electric vehicles.
The group identified gun safety as an issue to address before the mass shooting in Las Vegas earlier this month, said Dee Rowland, who worked as the government liaison for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.
"The mass killing brings us all to our knees. But the mass killing also has to bring us to our feet to do something," she said, though she doubts Congress will take any action.18 comments on this story
The Legislature, she said, should not allow "permitless" carry to void the background check and firearm training required for the state-issued concealed weapons license.
The Utah Citizens' Counsel argued for Medicaid expansion two years ago on ethical and moral grounds, and last year as a fairness issue. Michael Deily, the state's former Medicaid director, said expansion in 30 states has shown more people getting coverage while not dropping private insurance to access the government health care program.
"It's one piece of the puzzle, but we see it as an important piece," he said.