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Rolly: Rex Black fought the populist fight

Published December 18, 2012 8:47 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The death last week of former Senate Minority Leader Rex Black reminded me of a favorite story from the days when I was a reporter covering Utah lawmakers.

It was the mid-1980s and the Legislature, like today, was dominated by Republicans with Democrats occupying just a corner of the seats in the House and Senate. But a perfect storm of events put Black and House Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich briefly in control to the point they could command adoption of liberal-borne legislation amid a right wing super majority. Leaders of the conservative majority had to grit their teeth and bear it.

Black was not a flaming liberal by any means. But he had cut his political teeth working with labor unions. He represented many working-class families living in the northwest quadrant of Salt Lake City.

Dmitrich represented the coal miners in eastern Utah. He, too, had strong feelings for working men and women.

Both held tight to New Deal values. But as Democrats, their views amounted to a peep against the noise of the anti-union juggernaut in the Legislature.

Except once.

The administration of Republican Gov. Norm Bangerter was reeling in economic doldrums after downturns in the mining and construction industries and exploding enrollment in Utah's public schools. The conservative governor decided the only way to cope was to raise taxes — an idea that in the Ronald Reagan '80s, like in the conservative movement today, resulted in acute apoplexy.

The Republican legislative leadership backed the governor. But the rank and file members of the House were not led to the barn easily. Many had been elected in the Reagan tsunami of the early '80s and could best be described as the early ancestors of today's tea party.

I was sitting in Black's office during a lull in legislative action when lawmakers were off the floor. Suddenly, Dmitrich appeared, gave Black a sly smile and said, "They need us."

Black, an unassuming gentleman who carried himself with a quiet resolve, looked a bit amused, then asked, "Why?"

It turns out that enough Republicans in the House refused to vote for any tax increase whatsoever, and they didn't have the votes to save education, as Bangerter had put it. They needed all the votes of the little band of Democrats to pass the budget, giving the minority leaders a burst of unexpected power.

"What do we want?" Dmitrich asked.

So the two laborers-turned-statesmen cobbled together a plan that would have made Franklin Delano Roosevelt proud.

They agreed to give the governor and Republican leadership their votes on the budget. In return, they got the leadership to agree to eliminate the federal tax deduction on state tax returns, which took away a valuable tax break for wealthy people who paid higher taxes and at the same time increased the income level on which families had to pay taxes.

So it took from the rich and gave back to the working poor.

Subsequent Republican legislatures eventually put most of the federal tax deduction back in place, but at least Utah had that populist policy for a while.

It was the thought that counted. And it was part of the legacy of Rex Black.

prolly@sltrib.com