Utah legislators should send thank-you notes to President Donald Trump and the entire Congress. The brief federal government shutdown, coinciding with the start of Utah’s legislative session, starkly elevated Utah’s lawmaking process as a citadel of responsible governance, compared with Washington’s dysfunction. We consider the contrasts.
Last week, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, House Speaker Greg Hughes and Gov. Gary Herbert all gave speeches discussing Utah's current status and their visions for the future. Were there any surprises, disappointments or real inspiration? Any lessons that the feds can learn?
Pignanelli: "The broader problem is what the shutdown says about the state of politics today.” — Gerald F. Seib
In the first week of the legislative session, one could smell the reason and maturity pervading the Capitol. Lawmakers, staff and lobbyists were working and getting stuff done, a real contrast with the goofiness in Washington.
The traditional presentations from the top state legislative leaders had the usual aroma of respectability. But in an unusual development, they moved into the activist mode. Hughes hopes lawmakers maintain a strong role in resolving the homeless issue, while pushing legal action against opioid manufacturers. Another interesting fragrance: The future gubernatorial candidate wants to expand various powers of the Legislature. Niederhauser outlined an aggressive approach to tax and revenue reform. He is demonstrating real commitment to this change by personally sponsoring authorization of a toll road in Little Cottonwood Canyon. These are new, welcome scents.
Herbert shifted from his usual speech parameters to recognize the challenges that women and others face in the workplace. His acknowledgment of the progress made with the homeless, suicide prevention and other needed social programs is a welcome fragrance. Democrats reaffirmed their pledges to working families.
So while Utah olfactory senses were offended by grunge in Washington, the whiffs from the Capitol restored their senses.
Webb: They all gave good speeches. I would have liked to have seen a lot more focus and passion about Utah’s No. 1 problem — education funding. Excellent education is Utah’s top opportunity and challenge. Our future depends on it. But despite a fair amount of lip service, it’s clearly not the top priority of policymakers. Otherwise, Utah, with its emphasis on families and children, wouldn’t be No. 32 in the country in education quality and wouldn't get a grade of C-minus, as recently rated by Education Week, which each year conducts a comprehensive assessment of state-by-state education quality.
A prepared workforce ranks No. 1 in every survey of site selectors or business leaders looking to expand or relocate. Businesses are struggling to find qualified workers even as thousands of Utahns are unemployed or underemployed. That’s a real disconnect. Utah can’t expect the good times to last if 31 other states are better preparing their young people for the high-tech jobs of the future.
We need passion, leadership, intensity and drive to achieve education excellence — such as was displayed by Hughes as he aggressively addressed homelessness. Let’s see him tackle education.
Political observers and media pundits are trying to pick the winners and losers of the government shutdown. Any impact on Utah politicians?
Pignanelli: Every day, over 100 million Americans wake up and go to work. We don’t have the luxury of avoiding obligations because of disagreements with colleagues. Further, most Utahns do not care about the political point-scoring and message spin generated by shutdowns.
Left- and right-wing extremist groups are focusing on politicians, locally and nationally, to take hard-line positions and cause future shutdowns. Hopefully, candidates will ignore their threats and adhere to the high ideals of Utahns by providing relief for "Dreamers." That may require compromise in other areas.
Webb: I suppose because his vote wasn’t make-or-break, Sen. Mike Lee gets a pass for voting twice to shut down the government. I certainly share his concern on continuing resolutions and the dysfunctional Senate that can’t pass real budgets. But when a protest vote could result in something as drastic and hurtful as closing the government, his votes were way too extreme. It’s like refusing to help someone in a car crash because you don’t like the way he was driving.
Could the deliberations in this legislative session promote or deflect the emotions behind the five ballot initiatives, as legislators hope?
Pignanelli: Public education will get another boost of ongoing resources, with hope of demonstrating to voters legislative commitment. There is talk of some action on marijuana, to keep control of this activity. Plans to change the nomination process have not been revealed.7 comments on this story
Webb: Not all the proposals will likely get on the ballot. For those that do, we’re going to find out if there’s a disconnect between legislators and the voters of Utah. Are voters willing to pay more for excellent education, considering Utah is last in the country in per-pupil spending? Are legislators out of touch on Medicaid expansion, redistricting, medical marijuana? We’ll know in November if legislative policy is in tune with citizen sentiment.
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 the president/CEO of the Special Olympics of Utah. Email: [email protected]