Deborah Gatrell: A civics lesson for the Utah Legislature

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Speaker Brad R. Wilson, R-Kaysville, shares a laugh with Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, before the State of the State address in the Utah House Chambers, at the Utah State Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020.

We all have our share of problems. To solve them, we must correctly identify the root issue. If we misdiagnose, our solutions will be ineffective, or worse.

There’s been much talk about civic education in Utah’s halls of power recently. Our leaders are justifiably concerned about a general decrease in civic knowledge and voter turnout in elections despite high levels of relative political engagement.

While these concerns are legitimate, we’ve also reached a crisis point of public trust in our governing institutions. What to do?

Let’s start by understanding the problem.

Voter participation rates in Utah are usually low. Many disaffected citizens believe their vote no longer matters, so they do not actively engage. Large numbers of unaffiliated voters in Utah suggests disillusionment with the major parties.

Why? Here are some likely contributing factors:

It seems our representative institutions fail to effectively represent the people. Too many elected officials have forgotten their role as public servants — easy to do while being feted by lobbyists.

It was clear in tax reform debates that many committee members were unsure of impacts when they discussed expanding sales taxes. Concerns raised by advocates for the poor were dismissed. Teachers were told to be quiet. Lobbyists were welcomed and asked follow up questions.

I know. I was there.

Of course we shouldn’t legislate by citizen initiative or referendum, but thank goodness we have these tools to pressure our elected officials when they are deaf to our concerns.

It’s telling that We the People feel left with no other options.

The Utah 2019 tax referendum petition was a magnificent exercise in civic engagement as Utahn’s revolted against the tax reform package passed in special session on Dec. 12. Pejoratively labeled as fringe groups, criticized by our elected officials, and attacked by the Sutherland Institute with misleading half-truths, people of all political stripes from all walks of life responded by signing the petition en masse.

We met the required threshold for putting the law on the 2020 ballot with the legislators who gave it to us. So they repealed it, questioning our motives again as the 2020 legislative session started. The people who organized and engaged in this effort remain watchful.

What, then, to do about the current state of civic engagement and civic education in the great state of Utah?

The Legislature’s answer is retaining a civics test graduation requirement that doesn’t actually assess civics. Never mind that a request to remove this test from state code came from teachers, counselors and students was supported with a unanimous vote from the House Education committee after state Superintendent Sydney Dickson, the Granite School District and UEA spoke in support of repeal.

I have another suggestion for the Legislature: Consider the opportunity presented by the 2020 Census for honestly representative redistricting. Respect the intent of Proposition 4. Even President Reagan called gerrymandering a national disgrace. Utahns are tired of it.

We believe our voice should matter, not one bit less than paid lobbyists and corporate sponsors.

If the status quo continues, expect primary challengers, motivated support for minority party candidates, and a significant turnout for the November 2020 elections. We’re tired of being overruled by leaders who refuse to listen to us.

So please listen to understand and allow voters to choose you instead of the other way around. We’ll all be better off.

Deborah Gatrell

Deborah Gatrell is a National Board Certified teacher and a veteran, frustrated enough by Utah politics to consider running for office.

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