Fred Ash: Utah Legislature should focus on a few issues

Too many bills leaves no time for lawmakers to focus on what’s important.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Onlookers fill the gallery of the House Chamber, March 25, 2022.

Dear Legislators,

Sorry I will not be able to meet with you personally before the Legislature session begins. I appreciate your willingness to serve in the Legislature, and I know that we will not always agree on issues. My concerns haven’t changed much since last year. I hope as you make decisions, you will consider these concerns.

I feel it is important that legislators leave governance to the entities given that responsibility by our constitution: the state school board, county governments, local boards of education, city governments, etc. If legislators feel that those entities are failing in their responsibilities they should at most review and set updated standards, then let the other constitutionally established governments within our state handle the specifics.

Hopefully legislators will resist the temptation to micromanage public education. In the past some legislators have submitted bills about grading schools, teacher performance pay and certification of teachers. And more recently there have been efforts to legislate classroom curriculum and instructional materials, some of which would make teaching more difficult. Such decisions should be left to the Utah State Board of Education.

Two sessions ago, the Legislature did some good things in the public education funding process, but that didn’t restore the millions of dollars taken away from public ed with changes in the income tax allocation starting in the mid 1990s. So, instead of cutting taxes more, please consider using any income tax “surplus,” not as surplus, but as available funding to restore some of that lost public ed revenue to improve funding for poorly funded public education programs.

I appreciate that legislators have resisted voucher type proposals, as all of them up to this point would have had a negative impact on the funding, staffing and operation of public schools.

My guess is that Utah still has about the highest number of students per capita in the nation, so it is unreasonable to expect the state to be very high in per-pupil expenditures, but we still need to work at improving funding for valuable services such as education support staff, for improving teacher salaries, lowering class sizes, improving classroom conditions enough to attract and retain good teachers.

A legislative practice that has had unintended consequences is giving tax breaks to entice new businesses to locate in the state. Enough is enough. Giving tax incentives to attract new businesses reduces the revenue needed to cover the increased costs brought by the new businesses: more schools, more maintenance and upgrade of infrastructure, more law enforcement, more social services, etc.

The cost of housing is already too high for young new workers to afford. Our freeways are too crowded, not just during rush hours. Our disappearing Great Salt Lake is mostly the result of the increased number of businesses and employees that have moved into the Salt Lake Valley in recent years.

Fiscal responsibility doesn’t just mean making ends meet with lowest taxes possible. It means making sure important needs such as public ed, law enforcement, health care, social services, etc., are covered as much as possible even if additional taxes are needed.

I and a whole lot of other Utah people wish there was a way to cancel the inland port with all of its negatives: increased diesel truck traffic on our freeways, destruction of wildlife habitat on the lake bed, etc.

And I especially hope that enough legislators will resist efforts to make public lands to be state lands, where their availability for public use will be threatened.

If legislators were willing to make a rule that would limit the number of bills legislators could present during a session, maybe they would have the time needed to properly study proposed bills. For the 2022 session I couldn’t find out how many bills and resolutions were requested before they were numbered, but the total bills numbered were House 492 bills and 45 resolutions; and Senate 260 bills and 11 Resolutions, a total of 752 bills and 56 resolutions, 512 of which passed, including the veto override of H.B.11, Student Athletics Participation. This compares to last year’s 1,216 bills requested, 699 bills and 75 resolutions numbered, 502 of which passed. So my guess is that there would have been at least 1,200 bills requested at the beginning of the session.

Our Legislature is composed of 29 senators and 75 representatives, a total of 104 legislators. So that would be an average of about 12 bills requested per legislator. One can only imagine how much better bills would be debated, how much less revision would have to be done in future legislative sessions, if our Legislature would simply establish a limit of about five or six bills a legislator could request in a session.

Again, I appreciate your willingness to serve. Have fun.

Fred Ash

Fred Ash is legislative chair of the Utah Retired School Employees Association.