The Utah Legislature begins its 2019 session Monday, facing an enviable $1.3 billion surplus and a statewide unemployment rate of about 3.2 percent.
It also convenes in one of only a handful of states where lawmakers serve part time with minimum staff and low pay. Utah legislators make $273 per day while serving, with varying extras for lodging and meals. It’s not a position people seek for the money.
Skeptics may not believe there is a direct correlation between that and the state’s current prosperity, but the Beehive State has shown convincingly that a true citizen Legislature, where members serve for 45 days and then return to live and work among their constituents, does not impede progress despite a fast-growing population.
That doesn’t mean everything the Legislature does is right. Certainly, states with full-time, highly paid lawmakers don’t get everything right, either. But Utahns should be thankful their state representatives remain as accessible as they are.
That relationship may be tried by some of the difficult decisions awaiting lawmakers this year.
Large surpluses can be a blessing and a curse. While only roughly half of this year’s excess is in ongoing funds, expect numerous interests to vie for a share. In his proposed budget, Gov. Gary Herbert would like to return some of it to taxpayers through a reduction in the sales tax. He would combine this with reform of that tax, removing many exemptions, thereby broadening the base of transactions subject to it, and then lowering the rate.
We anticipate this will be a major focus of discussion and debate at the Capitol. And while the exact details of the governor’s budget may not be up for debate, the idea of removing as many exemptions as possible is a good one.
Many lawmakers worry that a recession may be looming in the near future, given the current booming economy and the length of time since the last slowdown. When economies contract, sales tax revenues tend to decline dramatically as people stop making purchases. A broader sales tax base would serve to lessen that blow, especially if the tax applied to necessary services such as haircuts.
Beyond economic issues, some lawmakers have shown a desire to amend some of the initiatives voters passed in the last election. They may have been emboldened by changes made to the successful medical marijuana initiative in a December special session. But this would be a mistake.
Changes to the medical marijuana measure, known as Proposition 2, came after months of negotiations between supporters and opponents. Their negotiated agreement was announced weeks before the election, but not in time to change ballots. The final amended law demonstrated the best aspects of representative government, where all sides agree to compromise for the greater good.
No such compromises exist with either the Medicaid expansion or the independent redistricting initiatives that also passed.
While it would not be illegal for lawmakers to change these measures, doing so would call into question the value of Utah’s Constitution, which allows citizens to propose laws through a petition process. Lawmakers should at least wait a year or two to see how these measures play out.
Clean air is bound to be an issue this year, as well. The governor has proposed allocating $100 million toward improvements. Lawmakers are toying with ideas that would make transit free on bad air days, outlaw wood-burning stoves and fireplaces each winter season or provide incentives to convert those to natural gas.
These ideas have merit. Utah has made great strides toward cleaning the air in recent years, with much of the credit going toward the Environmental Protection Agency and cleaner-running automobiles. But inversions remain a perpetual challenge requiring constant efforts to improve.4 comments on this story
The recent end to the federal government shutdown made this session a bit easier. Unless it shuts down again in February, Utah lawmakers no longer will need to worry about using the Rainy Day Fund to keep national parks open or to keep certain federal services going.
As always, we suspect other, unanticipated issues will arise and dominate headlines during this session. We urge lawmakers to remain focused on substantive matters of health, safety and economic prosperity. We also urge Utahns to become engaged in the process, with a measure of gratitude for those who serve part time, with little compensation, on their behalf.