Robert Gehrke: My 2021 predictions for Utah, including some worst-case scenarios

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

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For a few years now I tried my hand at New Year predictions for Utah and for the first time I’m proud to say my record wasn’t great.

If I had predicted an earthquake, hurricane-force winds, a president who broke democracy, and a global pandemic that killed thousands, then I would have clearly been dabbling in the black arts.

Instead, I predicted that President Donald Trump would win reelection (which, given how close the race was, he probably would have were it not for a certain virus), Rep. Ben McAdams would narrowly win reelection (nope), the Legislature would rewrite the independent redistricting commission referendum (they did), and a bid to repeal the Legislature’s tax reform would fail (it didn’t).

I also predicted that legislators wouldn’t have the stomach to tinker with the constitutionally protected funding for Utah’s public school (they did), Democrats would gain one House seat (nailed it), and the Utah Jazz would lose in the second round of the playoffs (they fell in the first).

That’s not a great batting average. But I think where I missed the mark is that I didn’t adequately account for how messed up and sadistic the universe really is — I failed to account for a worst-case scenario. Not this time.

So with that recalibration, here is what is in store for us for 2021.

Trump will Trump: It’s been eight weeks since he lost the election and the president is still spending most of his time tweeting nonsense about voter fraud (it is nonexistent) and very little time doing his job. Normally you’d fire an employee like that, but we tried that and it hasn’t stuck. The only conclusion one can draw is he actually believes what he’s saying and that won’t change.

So in the final weeks before Joe Biden’s inauguration, expect clownery to continue. There will be no concession, no conciliation, just ranting and grievances and probably more pardons. But he will leave office. (Worst-case scenario: Somehow Rudy Giuliani is right and Trump never leaves.)

Redistricting redux: Every time Utah has gone through the decennial redistricting process, Republicans have used it to stick it to Democrats, creating contorted congressional seats and taking away, on average, six state House and Senate seats each time we’ve gone through the process.

But this time we have an Independent Redistricting Commission, right? Don’t hold your breath. The commission will make recommendations and the Legislature will do what it wants. That means shoring up the 4th District for Burgess Owens and probably tinkering with the south and west parts of Salt Lake County (except for Sen. Karen Mayne’s district). From a practical standpoint, that is getting harder to do, however, so Democrats will only lose two to three seats this time around. (Worst-case scenario: Somehow Dan McCay ends up as my senator.)

The Bears and the Biden: The on-again-off-again Bears Ears National Monument will be back and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument will be restored to its original boundaries. It’s kind of a no-brainer, as is the apoplexy among southern Utah commissioners. (More on that below). Rep. Chris Stewart will push his Grand Staircase National Park idea as a compromise, but there’s no reason for national Democrats to play ball on that, so it’ll crumble.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and the Legislature will sue immediately (they will be suing the Biden administration a lot next year) and ultimately, the Supreme Court will get the last word. But that could take years. (Worst-case scenario: Somehow Phil Lyman ends up as monument manager.)

Prolonged pandemic: We’re all super-excited about vaccines, but we’re starting to witness what an ordeal it will be to get them out on the scale we need. So we’re looking at several more months of mask-wearing and caution. The usual suspects will resist getting vaccinated and the Legislature will capitulate to their base. The virus will be a drag on the economy for much of the year although Utah will rebound better than most. Congress will have to step in with more aid, triggering howls from Stewart and the rest of the congressional Republicans who will miraculously rediscover the national deficit. We’ll have at least one government shutdown. (Worst-case scenario: Somehow the anti-vaxxers knew what they were talking about and the vaccine turns us into Bill Gates’ army of mutant rat-people.)

Mitt in the middle: With the late-developing pandemic relief plan that finally got signed into law, we are seeing a new middle develop in the U.S. Senate, which has been missing since Sen. John McCain died. And Utah Sen. Mitt Romney was in the room where it happened. Assuming Democrats don’t win both of the Georgia Senate run-offs (and I don’t think they will) it will be up to Romney and this group to get anything done in Congress next year. Romney’s willingness to deal will further alienate him from the Trump Party/Tea Party 2.0 constituents in Utah. (Worst-case scenario: Somehow Burgess Owens convinces Romney to join the QAnon caucus.)

• Racial injustice will continue, efforts at reforming police use of violence will get bogged down by unions, and we’ll see more protests.

• There will be some early discussion, but not much action, on reforming Utah liquor laws. The number of bar licenses will get bumped up and there will be murmurs of wine in grocery stores and potentially by mail.

• The Legislature will nibble around the edges on tax reform but steer clear of another big wholesale overhaul.

• Congressman Owens will say something weird and embarrassing. (This is the “Free” square on your bingo cards.)

• The Utah Jazz will make it to the Western Conference finals. (This prediction is mostly to annoy Andy Larsen who thinks I should stick to politics.) On a somewhat related note, Qualtrics founder and new Jazz owner Ryan Smith will buy the rest of the things.

• Last one: The next year will not be anywhere near as soul-crushingly grueling as the last one. (Worst-case scenario: Somehow it’s worse.)