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Gay Lynn Bennion: The Women’s State Legislative Council: 100 years of empowering women and influencing state legislation

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Abby Guymon, left, and her twin sister Kate, 10, join other local supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment for a rally at the Utah Capitol on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019, to encourage Utah to ratify the ERA.

I stood there, with my cell phone finally quiet and my feet firmly planted on the hard-packed trail. The sound of the stream and my anticipated hike began relaxing my mind, and my thoughts turned to the remarkable accomplishments of the Women’s State Legislative Council, of which I am a member.

The purpose of this 100-year-old nonpartisan organization, open to both men and women but founded by women, is to vigorously champion good legislation for the state of Utah. For me personally, this hive of engaged, curious women has been life-changing.

When I joined the organization, my first assignment in 2013 was as co-chair on the Natural Resources/Energy Committee, led by a past PTA president JoAnn Neilson. As I sat with her in an interim session, the Utah Trust Lands Administration was reporting on the state school fund.

In the 1980s, Margaret Bird was a researcher in that office and documented numerous abuses. For example, operators were paying a 15-cent-per-ton royalty on coal at a time when the going rate was $2, and then the money was not invested in education as it should have been.

Such revelations led to the 1994 creation of the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration and a crucial change in how trust lands were managed. Since then, the state school fund had grown from less than $50 million to nearly $1.4 billion at the time of our 2013 meeting, and currently stands at $2.4 billion, all due to the independent role granted to SITLA.

The PTA was pivotal in accomplishing the creation of SITLA and continues its vigilant oversight of incoming funds and distributions of the yearly interest that is made to community councils at each school. In that 2013 meeting, the legislators made reference to JoAnn, thanking her for the role the PTA had played in improving funding for education through SITLA, which clearly demonstrated to me the power of women working together.

In our WSLC committees we study current bills and invite legislative sponsors and those with concerns about a bill to speak to our council. During the current divisive period in our country, WSLC is a place of healing. In our recent legislative sessions, strong, opinionated WSLC members — be they Republicans, Democrats or unaffiliated — discussed and voted together on resolutions for funding clean air, the Equal Rights Amendment and Healthy Utah and in opposition to the inland port and changes to SITLA.

The decisions we make as to what to endorse or oppose are nonpartisan. In fact, the WSLC rotates its board members between the political parties each biennium to ensure equality and to encourage new, unbiased ideas.

Many of us come from “mixed” political households or feel that we can’t speak openly with those from differing parties. That is why we come here — to embrace our differences and build on our trust and respect for each individual’s thoughts and opinions. We set aside the party affiliations that confine us and just speak to one another. Amazingly, we often find a consensus.

In earlier years I felt that sometimes the resolutions we adopted for or against legislative bills didn’t make a significant difference for our state. Now I realize a major accomplishment of WSLC, apart from our wins and losses on the legislative front, is the civic education and empowerment that organically takes place in the lives of the women and men involved. In fact, many past and current members of WSLC are now in office or running for office, in large part thanks to the experiences and connections gained through WSLC.

As strong as the WSLC is, we need even more diversity. We have strong Latinas leading us, but we need more black women, more Pacific Islanders, more Asian women. Many of us are on the far side of 50, so we need younger voices. We need you!

After 100 years, the WSLC is still empowering women and changing the political landscape of Utah. That is a strength worth celebrating. Stop by our website http://wslcofutah.org/ and join the conversation. Find out what you can accomplish with us.

Gay Lynn Bennion

Gay Lynn Bennion is a candidate for the District 46 seat in the Utah House of Representatives.

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