Taxes, school vouchers and the culture war. Robert Gehrke’s look at the Utah Legislature 2023 priorities.

Utah’s lawmakers will spend the next 45 days focused on divisive political issues, missing an opportunity to benefit Utahns the most.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Workers prepare the Senate Chamber for the upcoming legislative session on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023.

I was talking with some friends the other night when it occurred to me that it will have been 26 years since I covered my first legislative session.

I remember those early years at the old Capitol when it was still waiting for a slight quake to crush us all. At the time, I had an eyebrow ring (don’t ask), zero kids, no house, two sport coats, theoretically owned an iron and was in sheer awe of the potential for good that these elected representatives could do.

I was both an optimist and a fool. All these years later, I have kids, a house, no body jewelry and I wish I could say this Legislature will recognize that potential good for the people of the state.

But it won’t.

This session, more than any I can remember, sees a confluence of vile, divisive culture war issues — a body that gains from stoking those divisions and a complete lack of electoral accountability.

So, in preparation for what is to come, the wide-eyebrow-pierced optimist and the jaded, gray-haired cynic in me offer up what we should hope this Legislature will achieve — some of which, to be clear, they likely will actually do — along with the wreckage I anticipate we’ll see sifting through the rubble of this session.

What they should do

Meaningful water conservation

Gov. Spencer Cox has proposed more than half a billion dollars in federal money for water conservation efforts. A lot of it makes sense — funding things like turf replacement programs, for example. But they should be bold: Much more money for the Great Salt Lake (which experts warn could vanish in the next five years), move up the deadline and add money to install meters on secondary water, rescind the law that lets water speculators sit on unused water for as much as 40 years.

They need to get serious about addressing the real issue — finding efficiency in agriculture, which now consumes about three-fourths of the water in the state.

And maybe we figure out a way to tell Utahns, on those days when they can’t see the mountains on account of the dust off the lake bed, how much of that is due to the disappearance of that once great lake.

Broaden full-day kindergarten

Whether or not students have the opportunity to attend full-day kindergarten in Utah largely depends on the whims of their school districts. But the benefits of full-day kindergarten are well-established — kids get a leg up in math and reading, they benefit from social development and it is particularly beneficial to at-risk students.

A bill passed last year provided money to districts that choose to offer kindergarten, but Utah remains last in the nation in access to full-day kindergarten. We need to keep building in order to ensure every child across the state has access to the benefits of early childhood education.

Guns and domestic violence

We’ve seen so-called Red Flag Laws proposed and shot down the last several years in this state, but the recent murder-suicide involving a family of eight in Enoch was by no means unique — nearly a quarter of murders in the state stem from domestic violence — and should drive home the point that turmoil and guns are a bad combination.

Some good work has been done in recent years to protect domestic partners, but more is needed. The Legislature should also pass a bill sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler and backed by Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson that would create a database of domestic violence calls to police, so officers, prosecutors and judges know if there is a history of violence, even if charges weren’t filed. The bill stems from the murder of Henderson’s cousin by an abusive ex.

Invest in families

There is more than a quarter billion dollars in a Medicaid fund created by the 2018 ballot initiative to expand health coverage and some opportunities to help low- and middle-income families.

The Legislature can ensure all Medicaid recipients get dental coverage, extend post-partum coverage so mothers don’t risk losing insurance 60 days after they give birth and pass a bill by Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, that would make sure all Utah kids can get access to health care. After all, if the Legislature is going to be pro-life, the concern shouldn’t stop at birth.

Beyond that, a shortage in child care providers threatens to drive Utahns, particularly women, out of the workforce. Expanding kindergarten will help solve this issue, but the investment in families needs to go further.

Offering a significant child care tax credit to working families, incentivizing family leave and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit would be a good start. And while we’re at it, make the EITC refundable.

Every legislator who complains about inflation — and they all do — should be reminded that it’s a lot worse for people who were already struggling to get by.

Adopt a new state flag

Yay? It won’t go as smoothly as you might expect, but we’ll eventually get a new flag that will look better on t-shirts — a marketing triumph.

And finally, they should add bar licenses to accommodate the free market. That’s easy.

If the gavel drops in March and the Legislature has checked the boxes above, I’d consider it a success. We also know they have their sights set on a number of other actions that are more problematic, but likely to pass.

What the Legislature will do this year

Trampling on transgender kids

A flurry of bills have already been filed, some aiming to stop gender reassignment surgery on minors, others looking to stop hormone therapy on minors. Whether or not there is merit to the bills doesn’t, frankly, matter. Transgender Utahns are an easy target for legislators, who know demeaning the community will only benefit them politically. It’s harmful and repugnant, but legislators don’t care. These bills likely can’t be stopped.

Some school vouchers

Last year, Rep. Candice Pierucci’s Hope Scholarship Program — which would have provided parents with vouchers so they can send their kids to private school — suffered a convincing loss, voted down in the House 22-53. But some of those opponents are gone and advocates for vouchers are back again, having had a year to recruit support.

A sweeping voucher plan doesn’t seem in the cards, but some incremental step, dressed up to look like they’re helping poor kids (even though low-income families can’t afford most private school tuition even with a state voucher), will get enough support to pass. It will be the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent.

Slash taxes, again

Last year, Senate President Stuart Adams vowed it would be “the year of the tax cut — again.” So this will be “again, again.”

Cox floated a direct rebate that doesn’t seem to be getting much traction, nor will his recent pitch to get rid of the food tax. Instead, look for some broad-based income tax cut (which generally helps higher-earning taxpayers) and maybe some property tax relief.

“I’m confident that we’re going to have the largest tax cut in state history this year,” House Speaker Brad Wilson said recently. I don’t doubt him.

ESG for Every Single GOP-er

State Treasurer Marlo Oaks has been crusading against ESG scores — short for Environmental, Social and Governance — as a way to ensure banks and institutions aren’t allowed to consider the environmental and social impact of their lending.

The concern is that if there is, say, a solar plant and a coal mine seeking financing, lenders might lean toward solar because, well, it’s sustainable. No more! This boogeyman (investing in projects with long-term sustainability) is the latest cause célèbre in the crusade against “wokeism,” and the Utah Legislature — despite past opposition from banks and those who have to work in finance — will do their best to put an end to it.

Eradicating abortion

No matter what you think of abortion, the statute on the books is a slap-dash mess, thrown together for political purposes, not practical ones. It will need to be refined. They will tighten up the language but the intent will still be to ban abortions in Utah. There will also be a bid to put language in Utah’s Constitution essentially banning abortion and to torpedo the lawsuit against the state’s mess of a law.

What can you do?

Stay informed, pay attention to what is happening from trusted news sources, find out who your legislator is by visiting le.utah.gov and entering your address in the “Find Your Legislator” tab on the bottom right and then call or email them and let them know what you think.

Be considerate, polite and resolute. I can’t guarantee they’ll listen, but the only voices lawmakers hear shouldn’t be those appealing to the Legislature’s worst instincts.