Well, Valentine's Day came and went and no readers sent us candy kisses — or anything else. Despite the unrequited love, we still adore our readers and we share our opinions on current topics with great ardor.
State legislators always face external pressures — including the strong opinions of their own constituents — on difficult issues like Medicaid expansion, gun control and beer regulation. How much should lawmakers follow the wishes of their voters, and how much should they use their own judgment?
Pignanelli: "One of the greatest skills that politicians can have, is choosing when to listen to the polls and when not to.” — Clay Johnson
Having served in both roles, I suggest the relationship between an elected official and his/her constituency is analogous to a parent of teenage children. Lecture too much and you risk alienation and rebellion, while ignoring them is a greater peril. So communication and messaging is imperative.
In 1966, legislative Democrats boldly raised taxes, expanded bonding and mandated party registration. They failed to listen and explain their actions, which resulted in a dramatic turnover of the Legislature to Republican control. Political history is filled with similar omissions and ramifications. Utahns expect their leaders to use judgment but want their opinions considered (just like teenagers).
These dynamics are more pronounced today when 21st-century technology is a blessing and a curse. Social media can be manipulated to overwhelm politicians and sometimes mask the true feeling of voters. But the modern platform is a great tool of dialogue — and persuasion — with constituents. Further, shrewd politicos understand polls are snapshots of emotions, subject to shifting forces.
In difficult situations with my teenagers, I could always refer them to their mother. Politicians are devoid of such an alternative.
Webb: The threat of the next election is enough to keep legislators generally in line with the wishes of their voters. But, while public opinion and constituent sentiment should always be important influences, other factors are also important. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need legislators. We could just take polls and hold popular votes to determine public policy. A great politician can lead public opinion, not just follow it.
Here’s the right way to make a difficult decision and survive politically: Thoroughly investigate the issue. Listen to all stakeholders. Learn the facts. Make sure voters and stakeholders feel their positions were heard and understood. Decide what’s in the best interests of the people and the state. Announce the decision, and forthrightly explain why it was the best decision. Even if many people disagree, most will respect the process and feel they were treated fairly.
Lawmakers and the governor need to better communicate the fact that the final Medicaid expansion outcome is pretty good. The population not covered by Medicaid will still have access to inexpensive health coverage through subsidized exchanges. The initiative proponents got most of what they wanted. In politics, that ain’t bad.
Lawmakers are now turning their attention to tax reform and tax cuts. Broadening the tax base will be incredibly difficult. How will legislators respond to the political dynamics of this issue?
Pignanelli: Expanding the sales tax burden to encompass professional services will impact hundreds of thousands of Utahns. Regardless of any “good public policy” motives, this will generate a storm of controversy. Those who were previously untaxed will not quietly accept this change, especially in the last few weeks of the session. A massive shift in revenue generation will require at least a year (if not longer) of lawmakers communicating with their constituents and the governor explaining the need. In other words, see the answer above.
Webb: Legislators are making a valiant run at meaningful tax reform. It might be the most important thing any of them can do in many years of legislative service. We ought to cheer them on because this is crucial to the state’s future.
However, the pressures will be immense when the list of services proposed to be taxed becomes public. Even though, overall, taxes will be cut, the task might be too complex and difficult to get it all done in this session. If that’s the case, the Legislature ought to make as much progress as possible, and at least pass a framework, listing the principles of tax reform, and come back in a special session to finish the job.
Virginia state government is in an uproar over allegations against the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. Could such a political mess occur in Utah?3 comments on this story
Pignanelli: As a nonmember heathen, I can make public statements polite members cannot. Yes, there were expressions of discrimination and cruelty by individual Utahns. But the legacy of respect, tolerance and compassion is deep in our culture and reflected in the officials we elect. The ongoing religious heritage of our state continues to deliver many diverse blessings, for which I am grateful.
Webb: Human nature being what it is, no state or local government is immune from political scandal. Comparatively, we’re rather scandal-free. But keep your fingers crossed.