Joseph McMullin: Utah Legislature is behaving like an evil AI

The Legislature is supposed to serve us, not the other way around.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Legislators applaud after Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Mathew Durrant gave his speech to the legislature, on opening day of the 2023 session, on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.

The way democracy is supposed to work: Ordinary people give power to representatives to act on the people’s behalf. Elected officials do the hard work of listening and researching so they can act in the interests of all those they represent. They are supposed to serve at the people’s direction, not direct the people to serve them.

But now the Utah Legislature is behaving more like an evil artificial intelligence, or AI, trying to take control over those who initially gave it power. Of late, the Legislature seems more concerned with pushing through an ideological agenda than responding with common sense to the huge, pressing problems that affect everyone in our state.

Exhibit 1 is the school voucher bill. With little time for public comment, and no heed paid to opposing voices, they rushed through a head-scratcher of a bill that diverts $42 million in public education funds to private schools. Not only does it give these private school students twice as much as public school students receive, it also gives private schools a pass on accountability measures such as mandatory testing and reporting.

The legislators who rubber-stamped this bill ignored a chorus of calls from PTSAs and local parents to stop taking money from public education. My wife contacted our representative from District 46, Jeff Stenquist, to express our concerns and to ask questions about his stance on the bill. No response. (For the record, Stenquist has not responded to previous requests to meet with him, along with some other constituents, to discuss our concerns about public education.)

This rushed and clearly orchestrated process of fast-tracking the bill through the Legislature sends a loud message that listening to everyone was not the legislators’ priority. For our part, the huge crowds of concerned parents and educators filling the rooms at the Capitol clearly communicated a message along the lines of “Hold on! We’re not on board! Please take some time to listen and adjust!” But our legislators already had a plan. Now they’ve passed their bill. But what about our public school system?

This is just the latest example of a troubling trend of the Legislature’s prioritizing incumbents’ power over constituents’ voices in Utah.

Exhibit 2 is the way the Legislature last year totally disregarded the redistricting maps created through a long, transparent, open process by the voter-instated independent redistricting commission. Instead, members of the ruling party rushed through their own maps, which totally ignored the commission’s work. The net effect of the Legislature’s map was to make more districts secure for the ruling party.

I’ve spent many years living and working in China. The Legislature is taking a page straight out of the Chinese Communist Party’s playbook, which is to scorn the rule of law and any systems that allow for fair, energetic competition between ideas and policies relating to governance. Instead, authoritarian governments prioritize staying in power over being accountable. Being bombproof (or veto-proof) is great for the ruling party but not great for everyone else.

At the level of the biggest picture, there is Exhibit 3, the matter of budgets. Currently the Legislature is working with billions of dollars in budget surplus and instead of funding public education and moving Utah up from its rank as the 51st worst-funded public education system in the entire country (51st!), legislators talk excitedly about tax breaks, as if there’s no productive use and no pressing need for that money.

When the house is on fire and needs the fire department to pour water on the blaze, what kind of firefighters open the fire hydrant but, instead of dousing the house, use it to fill free water guns to give to passerby? What is a more basic good for a society than quality education? Why skimp on the kids? Sure, handing out money to voters in the form of tax breaks is an easy way to score points, but the problems facing the state require serious, heavy-duty solutions.

Like an evil AI, the Utah Legislature has gone haywire. In their hands, power we gave to them to do jobs for us has become power to control us, ignore us, or to elevate the interests of certain kinds of people over the interests of all the people.

It’s time to pull the plug on Evil AI Legislature and replace them with elected officials committed to the competitive and collaborative nature of the democratic process.

Since many legislators only seem to be listening to the voices out-of-state activist groups and wealthy donors to their campaign, instead of to the voices of all of Utah’s citizens in our numbers, the only recourse we have is to use our numbers. This is still the one part of the system where we can make a difference if we work together.

In the short term, organize. In the next elections, vote them out.

Joseph McMullin

Joseph McMullin holds mathematics and law degrees from Brigham Young University and UCLA. He has spent several years working as an international lawyer in China and Hong Kong. He is a currently resident of Draper, where his four children attend public schools in the Canyons District.