Every week during Utah’s legislative session, The Salt Lake Tribune’s political reporters and columnists chat about the hottest topics of the week. The following is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.
Benjamin Wood (education reporter): Welcome to this week’s Trib Caucus Slack chat, which *has been* convening weekly during the 2018 legislative session. But the session ends tomorrow (huzzah!) so this is our final chat
Robert Gehrke (political columnist): I’m gonna miss you guys.
Wood: Congratulations everyone, we made it!
Lee Davidson (government reporter): Not yet
Michelle Quist (editorial writer): Let’s continue #tribchat every week and talk about our favorite cartoons.
Or our favorite Trump moments.
Wood: As it turns out: we’ve been renamed the *Donald J. Trump Utah Trib Caucus Slack Chat* in recognition of the president’s contributions to the media industry.
Davidson: No Stormy Daniels?
Wood: In case anyone hadn’t heard yet, there is a bill to rename the Utah National Parks Highway after Donald Trump. And at this point, that bill appears to be dead.
*Important note* nothing is actually dead until midnight Thursday.
Taylor Anderson (government reporter): Rep. Noel is trying to get support for the bill over 50 percent but that’s proving to be difficult.
Wood: If Noel gets ~46 percent of the vote does the bill still pass?
Gehrke: You could say it hit a big speed bump ... like you do at sltrib.com after 10 articles unless you subscribe NOW for just $7.99 a month. Support independent journalism!
Quist: It’s such a silly idea. Trump is still president. He’s a known philanderer and has no respect for women.
He’s barely even a Republican and has the least support in Utah as an R president in a long time.
Anderson: It’s interesting that Noel said he’d look for a presidential pardon for his friend [San Juan County Commissioner] Phil Lyman, then unveiled this bill.
Wood: It’s always hard to tell with Rep. Noel, but he seems legitimately surprised at the pushback on this bill. Gov Herbert and Senate President Niederhauser both poured cold water on the idea yesterday, plus twitter has made its opinions abundantly known.
Quist: Yay Twitter!
Gehrke: Gov. Herbert didn’t say yesterday that he would veto the bill. But he expressed reservations about it, and the governor is right. I mean we’d feel pretty silly if we name a highway after Trump and then he is impeached.
Davidson: Sen. Dabakis has several potential amendment ideas. They include the Stormy Daniels frontage road or onramp. The “grab ‘em by the beltway.” The Russian Collusion Cloverleaf. And the “Coal and Oil Not Scenic Byway.”
Quist: We’d feel silly if we name a highway after Trump. Full stop.
Gehrke: This bill isn’t going anywhere. But it did make the Legislature look foolish nationally. So big win for Mike Noel.
Wood: Dabakis is signaling that *if* this gets to the Senate, it will get ugly over there. And let’s not forget the brilliant chess move by Rep. Duckworth to replace the bill with a version that names the highway after Jon M. Huntsman Sr.
Quist: That was gold.
Gehrke: It makes sense. I suspect Jon Huntsman had at least been to a national park in his lifetime.
Davidson: It’s nice theater, but I’m not sure it stopped the bill. Others simply have reservations about honoring a politician while he is still in office.
Gehrke: What Lee said.
Wood: OK, let’s move beyond the political theater. @gehrke you had a column this week about the things that made it into the budget, and the things that didn’t.
Every year we see a lot of efforts die not for lack of support (ostensibly), but because there “just isn’t money in the budget”. You seem skeptical of that idea?
Gehrke: Amazing how they don’t have money for things like gang prevention but they manage to come up with money for, oh, golf tournaments and air shows.
Quist: Yes - what @leedavidson said. I don’t know how they can pass that with a straight face.
Wood: On the education side, there’s another $2 million for private software providers, but there isn’t $400K to help schools do home visits and improve attendance
Gehrke: It’s not really just skepticism. You look at the list every year and there are always, always, always pork projects — or as one governor used to call them Projects of Regional Koncern. P.O.R.K.
Wood: Literally lol’d at P.O.R.K.
So the question: is this an inescapable byproduct of government, or are they counting on the average voter not noticing. Or both?
Quist: They’re counting on the average voter not noticing. And not connecting the dots that these projects get priority over others.
Gehrke: Big picture, though, the budget came out reasonably OK, right? Schools look like they’re probably going to do OK. There was quite a bit of money for homelessness and for suicide prevention. There is always going to be some silly stuff in a $16.7 billion budget. But they did hit most of the high points.
And no, voters won’t care because these guys are bringing it home for their constituents.
For example, Curt Bramble got money for the Freedom Festival, but his constituents go to the Freedom Festival, so they’re going to think it’s great. That’s what makes pork so appealing. They bring home the bacon to their voters.
Wood: The usual suspects in the education crowd are grumbling. The numbers are lower than they had expected.
Quist: The numbers are low? I thought they were higher.
Wood: They’re scraping to get a 3% WPU. They were hoping for 4+. The state school board asked for 5.5.
Quist: I thought it was at 4. But 3% is the same as last year - not lower.
Wood: It was 4 last year.
Gehrke: It is interesting that they’re holding back tens of millions of education dollars in “reserve.” There is something to be said for caution. But they do have hundreds of millions of dollars in the Rainy Day Funds right now and some real needs.
Instead they’re holding back money and putting a tax increase on the ballot ... in a year with nearly $600 million in surplus.
Anderson: (More than that, @gehrke), they’ve just already promised away about $100 million.
They also have $80 million coming in from the federal tax changes, but they’re going to give $30 million to corporations and $50 million in income tax cuts.
Wood: On that point Gehrke, the number they’re talking about holding back in reserve is roughly ~1% WPU.
Gehrke: I think the big unanswered question on education funding is whether they put the Our Schools Now compromise on the ballot.
Right now they don’t have the votes, but Our Schools Now is working it hard.
Wood: Speaking of which, that’s our next topic 🙂
Quist: I’m not going to argue against an income tax cut. Have we seen the “deal” with Our Schools Now yet?
It seems that they wouldn’t settle for 3%.
Wood: We finally saw the deal yesterday. Rep. Edwards is sponsoring a resolution to put the question of a 10-cent gas tax hike on the ballot. It would be nonbinding.
The concept is, boost gas tax to fund roads, move general fund money away from roads as a result and fund schools instead.
Plus do a 5-year property tax rate freeze, which boosts school funding by more than $100M (the estimates vary).
Gehrke: It’s a real Profile in Courage by the Utah Legislature, right? They won’t step up and approve the tax hike in an election year, so they’ll punt it off to voters.
Quist: I like that. Ask the citizens, but in a way that fixes how government is working - not just throws money indiscriminately at schools.
Gehrke: Instead of passing laws they’re passing the buck.
Quist: Ha - @gehrke and I disagree.
One problem, which I asked Rep. Edward about yesterday, is that we’ve been hearing for years how the gas tax is dying. Cars are getting more and more efficient. So we’d be tying school funding to an unsustainable tax source.
Quist: Utah families drive big cars. They aren’t electric just yet.
Anderson: Voters told the Tribune they were cool with higher gas taxes for roads. Will they say the same for schools?
Quist: Every poll finds that taxpayers are good with tax increases. I don’t buy it.
And you can’t complain about the Leg asking the voters and be glad the voters are doing their own thing at the same time.
Gehrke: Oh, I can complain.
Wood: Wait, can’t we though? Isn’t it the Legislature’s job to *do* things?
Quist: Yes - and asking its constituents to approve something they typically don’t like is doing something.
Gehrke: It’s true the gas tax is not sustainable. There’s going to have to be something else somewhere down the Donald J. Trump Highway. But it’s a short-term patch.
Anderson: Tolling, anyone?
Davidson: Tolling is coming, so is a fee for “vehicle miles traveled.” Whatever replaces the gas tax could help make the patch permanent.
Gehrke: And, as I wrote this week, Our Schools Now is smart to take the deal:
Wood: I’d just like to point out that I gave 50/50 odds to an OSN compromise and ya’ll mocked me.
Quist: I don’t recall that.
Wood: LIAR! lol.
Anderson: From @bwood: “There’s a 75% chance that lawmakers boost per-student spending by *at least* 5%. And a 50% chance that Our Schools Now folds up their tent and goes home during/after the session.”
Wood: Man, my 75% guess was *way* off.
Quist: Well - that doesn’t say a compromise.
Wood: I elaborated afterward, don’t be contrarian Michelle.
Quist: Fine. You’re prescient.
Quist: But I’m pretty sure I called that OSN wouldn’t pass.
Davidson: UDOT plans to experiment on vehicle miles traveled soon -- and the new UTA overhaul bill will allow electric vehicles to escape higher registration fees if they opt in.
Gehrke: To Lee’s point, UDOT said the other day they’re probably a couple years away on the tech to charge for vehicle miles. They’re starting a pilot project. Oregon has done a five-year pilot and is still working out bugs. I think the gas tax might bridge the gap until we get there.
Anderson: My bigger question is this: Will Utah see this used as a playbook in future years? Groups bring ballot measures after what they say is legislative inaction, they collect signatures and the Legislature acts?
Quist: Well it happened with Count My Vote. But then it didn’t.
But now it might.
Wood: We don’t know yet if this gas tax question is going to pass at all. In past years, sponsors have suggested an income tax ballot question and been laughed out of the room.
Which, as it turns out, is part of what catalyzed OSN
Gehrke: That’s the problem, I think, Ben. Our Schools Now is still going to have to go run a campaign for this and is still going to be opposed by Koch money pouring into Americans For Prosperity and others.
Wood: The initiative is dead, long live the initiative.
Quist: This core group of citizens has money to burn, and they use it to “persuade” the Legislature. I guess it’s better than just donating to them.
Wood: They might rethink that strategy after seeing the Energy Solutions ROI
Gehrke: If I could go back to one thing Michelle said, I don’t think Our Schools Now or the Legislature throws money indiscriminately at Utah schools.
Wood: We’ve only got a few minutes left and we’re losing our government reporters to floor debates.
Anderson: No, I’d like to hear @gehrke and @mquist on that point.
Wood: By all means then.
Gehrke: Utah has one of the lowest administrative costs in the country, meaning more gets to the classroom. And the initiative sent money to local districts. #LocalControl
Quist: I think OSN would [throw money indiscriminately]. There are no details as to how to spend the money.
Are funds equalized yet?
Do we know the optimum class size?
Gehrke: No, we don’t know the optimal class size. I can tell you it’s probably not 30.
Wood: @mquist what kind of details are you looking for? Do you prefer prescribing how districts use their funding?
Quist: What kind of learning do we need $ for (see: the travesty of the independent learning model at Innovations).
There are too many questions to just start spending more money. Like Utah Foundation found, and @gehrke mentioned, we have low admin costs already. The money is actually getting to the classroom, but funding is still comparatively low. Because we have so many kids.
Gehrke: Maybe once Sen. Dabakis’ bill passes and we get rid of the kooky state school board we can get answers to some of these questions.
I have to say, I am REALLY surprised that that bill has caught on the way it has.
Wood: You and many of the lawmakers who voted for it.
Quist: I like it, actually. As long as local boards stay.
Wood: There are a lot of unanswered questions with that bill. As of right now local boards would be untouched. One thing is for sure, it would be a big change for our public education system.
Davidson: Just listened to a fascinating debate during this chat about a resolution to honor Billy Graham. Nice, but don’t know if it’s all that important on the next-to-last day of the session.
Quist: It’s not.
Davidson: The House is now discussing renaming Starvation State Park for former parks director Fred Hayes, who died last week.
Wood: Tomorrow is going to brutal if this is how they’re spending today.
Gehrke: I love it. The more time they spend on these sorts of things, the fewer bills they’ll pass come midnight tomorrow.
Run out the clock.
Wood: OK guys, get your final thoughts in now.
Davidson: Too busy to think, trying to drink from the legislative fire hose these last two days.
Wood: BTW, The House is about to un-dead a bunch of its dead bills.
Quist: Which ones?
Wood: Not sure yet. Speaker just announced that they’re going to spend time on the House bills that were supposed to pass the House on Monday.
That could include DJT Highway.
Correction, it *does* include DJT Highway.
Davidson: They suspended rules so they can hear the House bills.
Quist: Ugh. we're the party of rules! But they don't apply to us!
Final thoughts: they better not name a road after Trump. They should’ve passed protections for women in the workplace in companies under 15 employees, and I’m glad they passed contraception help for low-income women.
Anderson: I think OSN compromise passes. That means Rep. Last’s property tax freeze and voters would vote in November on a 10-cent per gallon gas tax (raising Utah’s to among the highest in the nation, at $0.39/gallon.
Gehrke: By the way, I thought this was really nice. [image uploaded]
Wood: With that we better call it and get to work. Thanks everybody, and see you next year.
Readers, what do you think would be the right Utah landmark to name after President Trump? Let us know in the comments. Follow our caucus members on Twitter for updates on the final day of the legislative session, and remember to check sltrib.com for all the latest news.