The Utah Legislature begins tomorrow. Get ready for a month and a half of non-stop lawmaking. Every issue imaginable will come up before Utah’s 104 legislators. We take a look at the people, the process and what we hope will be the outcomes.
The people_: Utah’s House and Senate members hold regular jobs, are not paid very much and, aside from top leadership, don’t get much glory or notoriety. Who are these people? What is their motivation? Why do they serve?_
Pignanelli: "Public service is about serving all the people, including the ones who are not like you.” — Constance Wu
Humorous observations and rational critiques of legislators’ policy deliberations are fair game. But anyone who attacks the Legislature as an institution or the integrity of individual members, regardless of party affiliation, is subject to my “Full Italian” response (animated passion, arms waving, leg stomping and loud protestations). It is not a pretty sight.
Ten years of legislative service representing the Salt Lake downtown area, combined with 22 years of lobbying, cultivates my deep affection for the people and traditions of the Legislature. Every one of the almost 1,000 lawmakers I encountered sought office for the finest reasons — help their community, promote personal ideals of good governance, bring unique experiences to the process, etc. The part-time nature of these positions demands incredible sacrifice from them, but guarantees a strong nexus to their constituents. The results can be inspirational or frustrating, but are based on pure commitment.
Prior to my first oath of office, always prescient Grandmother Pignanelli offered the Italian proverb “Si mira piu dell’affetto che all’effetto” (loose translation: look beyond effects and appreciate the good intentions of an effort).
Webb: Legislators are normal folks — which is why our system of government works reasonably well. But they have enough ego and confidence to put themselves before voters to be accepted or rejected in a very public election. It is a real ego boost to win. It’s devastating for some people to lose.
The part-time status of Utah’s Legislature is a real blessing for the state. Utah lawmakers are always torn between their legislative service, their full-time jobs, and their family, church and other responsibilities — and that’s a good thing. Few legislators are so caught up in politics that it defines and dominates their lives. And they have to live with the laws they pass, like everyone else. By contrast, in states with full-time legislatures, the focus is mostly on getting re-elected.
The process_: A record number of bills, well over 1,000, will be filed, far more than the Legislature can meaningfully address in its 45 calendar-day session (34 working days). Will the important issues be addressed? Should the session be lengthened?_
Pignanelli: Currently, 320 million Americans are witnessing unprecedented dysfunction strangling federal institutions. The other side of the spectrum is our Capitol’s well-oiled machinery. The much vaunted "Utah Way" that attracts businesses and media attention also permeates state government. Despite time constraints, lawmakers will scrutinize, prioritize and compromise to ensure major budgetary and administrative needs are met, while maintaining strong management principles. Lengthening the session creates problems for part-time lawmakers. Better alternatives exist in bolstering interim committees.
Webb: It’s very difficult to make controversial decisions in a committee of 104. But thanks to a very professional and capable staff, and a disciplined process, the Legislature does a nice job of prioritizing legislation and addressing the most critical issues. What looks chaotic from the outside, actually runs pretty smoothly. There is method in the madness. Lengthening legislative sessions would be a mistake.
The outcome_: When all is said and done, how will we know the Legislature has properly served Utah citizens and dealt with the state’s top challenges? What is on the legislative “must do” list?_
Pignanelli: Decision-makers will need to grapple with a potential recession in the next two years, explore more opportunities for efficiencies, continue planning for growth and its impact upon water and lifestyles, etc. Legislators do have a tough dilemma: leave the recently passed initiatives untouched (knowing potential large problems may result) or endure voracious criticism when educating constituents why they need to be modified.7 comments on this story
Webb: We must judge a legislature not by any crazy bill introduced, a silly speech delivered, or a nonsensical committee debate — but by the final outcome. When Utah’s lawmakers go home, the budget will be balanced and major issues will be addressed. Certainly the state’s problems won’t be entirely resolved. Air quality will still be a problem. Education will still be underfunded. Additional tax reform will be needed. Crime will still occur. But incremental progress will have been made, and the state will be just fine for another year.
Remember, not all problems can be solved by government. What happens in families, schools and churches is much more important.
Even the harshest critics of the Utah Legislature must admit that in comparison to the national Congress, Utah’s Legislature is a model of efficiency, accomplishment and probity.
Here’s to a great session.