Editor column: Will Utah Legislature heed the public?

By Terry Orme

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: January 25, 2014 05:25PM
Updated: February 18, 2014 08:35AM
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Terry Orme

To find out what could be the biggest issue facing the 2014 Utah Legislature, just look out the window.

Fifteen bills were unveiled last week by a bipartisan coalition of House members, and Gov. Gary Herbert proposes spending more than $17 million — all to combat Utah’s dirty air.

So expect lawmakers to devote a large chunk of time to the problem, and the public likely will feel that it is time well spent — as long as something gets done about it.

A Salt Lake Tribune poll shows growing concerns over our wintertime inversions and the airborne particulates that threaten our health. Most Utahns want tougher emission standards for industry and say they are willing to drive less, and use more public transportation, to clear the air.

Same-sex marriage and gay rights also should occupy much of the discussion and debate on Capitol Hill beginning Monday. The Tribune took the temperature of Utahns on those issues as well.

While Utahns are evenly split on issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, they overwhelmingly support civil unions and domestic partnerships, and by wide margins they say it is time to have statewide laws protecting gays from discrimination in the workplace and housing markets.

In the wake of investigative findings that former Attorney General John Swallow operated a “pay-to-play” culture of special favors for big donors, including those from payday-loan companies, Utahns support — by more than a 40 percentage-point margin — putting a limit on campaign contributions. They also overwhelmingly back more state regulation of payday lenders.

So, will lawmakers take the cue from their constituents and pass legislation to correct what Utahns clearly think are problems? We’ll see.

That’s one reason we do these polls before the session, to get a read on what Utahns think, and to establish a baseline to compare the people’s will to what their elected representatives accomplish.

Of course, there are other important issues we didn’t ask about in our most recent poll, chief among them, as always: education spending. Herbert announced last week a planned expansion of Medicaid, providing medical insurance to more low-income Utahns. But he didn’t say how far it would go. Here’s predicting there will be vigorous debate about that as well.

Once again this session, The Tribune and other news media are joined in a coalition to be the watchdog for any proposals threatening open government. With the bitter memory of 2011’s infamous HB477 still lingering, we will be on the lookout for challenges to open government and restrictions on access to information. We call this endeavor GRAMA Watch, after the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act, the law that spells out the public’s right to know.

The idea behind our legislative coverage, online at sltrib.com and every morning in the print edition, is to inform and involve readers in the process. On Monday, we will publish a full-page roster of legislators, complete with phone numbers and email addresses. Clip it out, or find it online at sltrib.com, as a handy guide so you can contact your senator or representative and weigh in on the issues.

After all, you’ve told us that they are important to you.

Terry Orme is The Tribune’s editor and publisher. Reach him at orme@sltrib.com.