Gehrke: Utah lawmakers fund pet projects — think air shows and golf tournaments — while shunning some worthwhile efforts to help people

A report released last year found that the wage gap between women and men in Utah is the second largest in the country, just ahead of Louisiana.

In an effort to better understand the underlying causes and what can be done to address the gap, Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, requested some money to study the issue. The state didn’t have it, she was told.

So on Monday, she announced two Brigham Young University researchers were willing to do the work for free — they just needed approval from the Legislature so they could get some necessary data from the state.

That request, too, was voted down, with the all-male Republican leaders nixing it on a party-line vote.

In a $16.7 billion budget that included a $581 million surplus this year, it’s hard for lawmakers to argue they don’t have the money. It’s even harder when you look at where they are spending some of that money this year.

They’re putting $125,000 — the exact amount Escamilla needed to conduct the wage gap study — into hosting a Web.com golf tournament, thanks to a request from Rep. Stewart Barlow, R-Fruit Heights.

They’re spending another $200,000, at the request of House Majority Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, to help stage the Big Outdoors Expo.

They’re funding Provo Republican Sen. Curt Bramble’s $100,000 request for America’s Freedom Festival, a July Fourth bash in his hometown; and once again ponying up $250,000 for the Hill Air Force Base Air Show, a request from Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton.

So keep that in mind when you're filing your state tax return in the coming weeks.

They couldn’t manage to come up with $300,000 that Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, and Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, tried to get for a program to help students in high-risk schools steer clear of gang activity.

They had more important things to spend taxpayer money on. Philo Farnsworth, for example, may lose his statue in the nation’s Capitol, but $100,000 in state funds will go toward a museum in his honor.

Lawmakers will spend another $350,000 for a teen cooking program at the request of Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City. And the Living Planet Aquarium will get $2 million for a new learning center, a request submitted the same day the aquarium hosted an event for legislators’ families.

It’s the same thing that happens every year: Programs that serve the people of this state are left wanting while legislators spend literally millions in taxpayer dollars on things like music festivals and theater productions and sporting events and trade shows and pet causes.

So you see efforts to restore funding for dental care for low-income elderly lose out to Rep. Mike Noel’s $350,000 slush fund for groups like the Foundation for Integrated Resource Management, Rural Utah Alliance and Balance Resources to sue over public lands issues, which I always understood to be the job of the attorney general.

The Legislature appears to not be funding Noel’s $2 million down payment on a lawsuit aimed at making California buy energy produced by Utah coal (at least for now), but it is spending $1.7 million to give EnergySolutions a break on inspections at its radioactive waste dump, courtesy Rep. John Knotwell, R-Herriman.

Have you been to the Sundance Film Festival and seen the celebrities and jet-setters from across the country descending on Park City? Would that festival really wither and die without $1 million every year from taxpayers? But that’s how much Rep. Tim Quinn, R-Heber, secured.

All of this comes from a Legislature that touts itself as supporting limited government and fiscal conservatism.

What it boils down to is that the issue is not a lack of funding — it’s a failure of priorities. And as long as legislators prioritize their pork-barrel projects over the people who could benefit from these programs, nothing is likely to change.