Despite all those battles over Medicaid expansion, gun control, public lands, the Utah State Prison, the economy and whether students with International Baccalaureate diplomas are unwitting tools of the United Nations, the Utah Legislature found itself on a more even political keel this year.
It couldn’t have happened at a better time.
Utah had found itself in the far-right column for too long, and voters clearly were looking for lawmakers who wanted to make themselves useful, not famous.
Many of the chest-thumpers are out, a handful victims of their own misguided convictions that hard-right bombast would land them in the governor’s office or Congress.
For another, changes in leadership — Sen. Wayne Niederhauser was elected Senate president after the more heavy-handed Mike Waddoups left — marked a change in how that body was managed. And House Speaker Becky Lockhart “worked very hard to make the Legislature productive in addressing the major issues facing the state,” says Kelly Patterson, a Brigham Young University political scientist.
Then there’s the 2012 “electoral tide,” he says, that brought a new cohort of legislators to Capitol Hill to face, for example, an economy that remains problematic.
As for those who ran for the governorship or the U.S. House and Senate, all took “a number of extreme, right-wing positions … they used their criticisms as a campaign tool for higher office,” says Tim Chambless of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.
But voters saw it as disingenuous or lacking merit, he added. “That’s kind of a polite way of being extremely harsh.”
For one thing, and to their credit, state lawmakers this year boosted Utah’s last-in-the-nation per-pupil spending by 2 percent and added $300 million to education, the most since the economy crashed in 2007.
On the other hand, a 2011 bid to snatch most of Utah’s 30 million acres of federal land remains on the table — despite valid arguments that the U.S. will never cede what Utahns agreed to in the state’s Enabling Act and the Utah Constitution.
Meantime, the state remains undecided on how and whether to fully expand Medicaid, which could save $131 million and give health coverage to more than 123,000 uninsured Utahns during the next 10 years.
Yes, the 2013 Legislature did some good things this year — and, more to the point, didn’t do as many wacky things. So you, me and our kids, if we have them, must remain vigilant about and active in the state’s politics.
We can applaud the movement toward a more centrist state government, but that doesn’t mean anyone can fully relax. Utah remains a state divided and dangerously slanted. That requires diligence and (note to nonvoters) a fully engaged electorate.
Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter: @Peg McEntee.