The Utah Legislature that convenes in January will have new leadership, a hefty revenue surplus to play with and, hopefully, a strong sense of direction on key policy matters, thanks to citizen voting on an unprecedented number of special ballot questions.
Aside from legislation dealing with Proposition 2 on medical marijuana, which will be handled in a special session overseen by current leadership, lawmakers next year will contend with other weighty matters brought to their door by initiative petitions. They will address how to fund and administer an expansion of Medicaid, as called for in Proposition 3, as well as how to accommodate strong public support for an independent commission system for redrawing political boundaries after the 2020 census, as called for in Proposition 4. In addition, though voters turned down a nonbinding proposal to increase the gasoline tax to free up money for education, the new legislative leaders are obliged to acknowledge consistently high levels of public support for increased investment in schools.
The 2019 legislative session will be defined by how closely lawmakers follow instructions from their voting constituents on those key issues, though they may be in conflict with the body’s traditional attitudes. The Legislature has been reluctant to expand Medicaid for fear of how it could bind the state to future demands on revenue. And the leaders of the GOP-controlled body have argued against ceding authority to oversee creation of congressional districts, which supporters of Proposition 4 argued are currently the products of gerrymandering.
It is true that Medicaid expansion will put a burden of some size on state coffers going forward, but it’s now the Legislature’s duty to figure out how to meet that burden. As for political redistricting, while Proposition 4 may pass or fail by a small margin of votes, the initiative demonstrates high levels of public interest in leveling the playing field when congressional districts are drawn. It would be unfortunate if legislative leaders interpret the close nature of the vote as an absence of a mandate to make change. The fact that half or more of voters approved the measure demonstrates legitimate concern over the way boundaries have been contoured for partisan advantage. Should it pass, lawmakers should temper any urge to fight it in court or deconstruct its intent by tinkering with its mechanics.20 comments on this story
As for education, the question on a gas tax increase came about as a compromise with Our Schools Now, an advocacy group that organized a petition drive to put an initiative on the ballot that would have raised $700 million for schools through income and sales tax increases. A gas tax hike was seen as a more palatable way to raise money for schools, though voters disagreed, whether because it raised the price at the pumps or it seemed an awkward and fallible way to fund schools or both. Nevertheless, the state is expected to enjoy a large revenue surplus to be revealed when Gov. Gary Herbert unveils his 2019 budget, which we hope and expect will include sizable investments in education.
The citizen initiative process is not an ideal mechanism to make policy or law, but it has been deployed at least in part because of public discontent over the direction lawmakers have taken on certain issues. The new leaders of the legislative branch will be well served by embracing the messages sent by voters, regardless of the manner in which they have been delivered.