Democrats have ambitious agenda for legislative session
Legislature • Minority party has strong opinions about top priorities, but they’re far outnumbered by Republican lawmakers.
Published: January 21, 2014 08:49PM
Updated: January 21, 2014 10:05PM
image
Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune File Photo Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, says Republicans are ready and willing to pass sound legislation on air quality and campaign finance reform. He said any plans for a tax increases are probably DOA.

The Utah Democratic Party wants the Legislature to clean up the air, put a limit on contributions to individual political candidates and increase education funding during the upcoming legislative session.

Party Chairman and state Sen. Jim Dabakis said lawmakers have talked a lot about improving air quality but have not done anything about it.

“We haven’t had the guts to actually do what needs to be done,” the Salt Lake City Democrat said.

Democrats held a news conference Tuesday to announce an ambitious agenda. But the political reality of being a super-minority could sidetrack many of their priorities. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the Legislature four to one.

On air quality, Democrats want to unleash state regulations from the federal system. Utah law doesn’t allow state environmental regulations to be stricter than federal rules. Dabakis said Utah’s valleys are unique and Utah needs its own regulations to address its pollution problems. He also argues that the state needs to follow the example of cities such as Los Angeles and Mexico City and enact stricter mandatory regulations on polluters because voluntary standards have not cleaned up the air.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said air quality is important to the majority Republican caucus, and he would support sound proposals to clean the air. But, he said, rather than regulating just polluters, a broader approach is necessary because almost 90 percent of pollution comes from buildings and cars.

Another Democratic priority is ethics reform. Rep Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, is proposing a bill that would limit individual contributions to statewide candidates to $10,000 and legislative candidates to $5,000.

“The problems in the attorney general’s office come back to one thing consistently,” Dabakis said. “It has to do with this scurrying for money. We’ve just got to tighten up on that.”

Dabakis said he understands the reluctance of some legislators about putting limits on campaign contributions because raising money is ugly and hard. He said it is easier to find a few people to write big checks than to find more people to donate smaller amounts. But raising campaign money in smaller amounts leaves legislators less beholden to donors, he said.

Niederhauser said any legislation on campaign finance is premature until the report from the House committee investigating former Attorney General John Swallow releases its recommendations. He would be in favor of legislation or rule changes coming out of the investigation.

One problem the Swallow case brought out is dark money, or money with no trail, and caps on campaign contributions may encourage people to donate dark money instead of transparent money, Niederhauser said.

Another top Democratic priority is increasing the state’s commitment to and funding for education. Utah has the largest classrooms and the lowest spending per student in the country, by around $900.

“All the talk is about how to rearrange the chairs instead of the fact that you can do all the rearranging you want, but at $6,300, $6,400 per child, it’s an impossible rearrangement to compete with Wyoming, not to mention Massachusetts, not to mention China,” Dabakis said.

The minority-party senator is proposing a bill that would eliminate the single-rate tax the Legislature instituted in 2008. He said the tax, which was supposed to be revenue neutral has cost education $260 million a year. He said returning to a progressive tax would put all that money back into education.

“It’s like a giant vacuum cleaner taking money from our schoolchildren and squirting it out over our richest citizens because they’re the ones that benefited most from the flat tax,” he said.

Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, is also proposing a bill that would limit deductions for children in order to raise money for education.

Niederhauser said any tax increase would not likely have any traction on Capitol Hill.

“Any tax increase is problematic from the get-go this year,” Niederhauser said.