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Op-ed: Moderate voters win session; Lockhart, lungs lose

By Maryann Martindale

First Published Mar 15 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Mar 15 2014 01:01 am

The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. And the bigger the loss, too. We began this session hoping for big returns on air quality, education and ethics reform. What we got was somewhat lacking. In no particular order, here is our rundown of this year’s winners and losers.

• Speaker Becky Lockhart was the session’s biggest gambler. Unfortunately for her, she lost her bet — making her the biggest loser. Lockhart opened the session with a bold attempt to distinguish herself from Gov. Gary Herbert ahead of a possible 2016 gubernatorial bid. In what has been referred to as her legacy bill, Lockhart spent much of the 45 days advocating for a $300 million influx into education spending, not for reducing class sizes or increasing teacher pay but to buy every kid an iPad.

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Despite Lockhart’s Mike Lee-like tantrum (she stormed away from the budget discussions, taking Medicaid expansion with her), the Senate refused to allocate the money she was looking for.

• With two more bad air days this year than last year, Utah’s inversion emerges as perhaps the foremost winner of this year’s session. Despite rather remarkable efforts by legislators like Rep. Patrice Arent, and organizations like HEAL Utah, the Legislature’s reforms weren’t enough.

They opted not to upgrade buses to cleaner-fuel technology and they continue to tie the hands of local officials by mandating that clean air guidelines not exceed federal standards, despite the fact that Utah needs a local solution. And even though our own Department of Environmental Quality identified wood burning stoves as one of our worst pollutants, the Legislature failed to adequately limit their use.

• Those in need of Medicaid expansion had little to lose and everything to gain, so the governor’s Healthy Utah plan comes as a surprising, if not perfect, win. Despite several independent reports that identified full expansion as the best plan, all efforts to fully expand Medicaid were dismissed out of hand.

While the Senate has green-lighted the governor’s advisers to negotiate for a uniquely Utah plan, the House has been stalwart in their refusal to act compassionately toward the 123,000 Utahns who would benefit from Medicaid expansion. The governor’s plan won’t cover everyone, but it is a far better option for Utah’s poor than doing nothing at all.

• Ideological voters lost and moderate voters won. Starting with the Count My Vote compromise, voters now have more primary candidate options and more ways to participate than ever before while retaining the caucus system. New and potential voters won big, too. Sen. Scott Jenkins’ bill cut the registration deadline to within seven days before election day, while Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck’s election day registration pilot program lets county clerks opt into a plan to test same day registration. Utah bucked national trends by making it easier to vote. These new laws are encouraging.

Although it perhaps goes without saying, the fat-cat donor is a perennial winner in Utah politics. On the heels of the John Swallow scandal, many observers hoped it would be a banner-year for campaign finance and ethics reform. Highest among those priorities were bills that would place caps on campaign contributions in an effort to prevent undue influence by large donors. Unfortunately, legislators, with eyes to their own campaign war chests, were not keen on placing limits on their own ability to raise funds.

Politics will probably always lend itself to a model in which some win and others lose. The winners and losers don’t line up quite how we expect. Lockhart’s risky gamble makes future wins more difficult for her, but a loss for better air, in which our inversions get worse, improves the possibility of winning more robust air quality reforms next session.

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In politics, winning and losing are a matter of perspective.

Maryann Martindale is executive director of Alliance for a Better Utah.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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