Well. That wasn’t so bad, was it?
Anyone looking forward from several months ago toward the 2021 session of the Utah Legislature might have expected a really grim time. With the COVID-19 pandemic just getting started, it was entirely reasonable to expect, as state lawmakers did a year ago, that the economy would be adrift at a point somewhere between sluggish and total collapse. That large spending cuts would be needed and the body would have the time and energy to deal with little else.
But, thanks to a quick rebound in the local economy overall (not shared equally, but still significant) and more than $900 million in assistance from the federal CARES Act, lawmakers were able to get through their 45-day ordeal without suffering, or imposing, much in the way of fiscal suffering. They also were able to take a few positive steps in such areas as education, transportation and homelessness.
At the same time, lawmakers passed several commendable bills and either killed or ignored some truly bad ideas. Not that there are not some good targets out there for Gov. Spencer Cox’s shiny new veto pen.
Taxing and spending
Rather than succumb to the normal temptation to go wild and crazy with tax cuts for the upper income, lawmakers gave back an accidental tax hike on families with children that was created by changes in the federal tax code. They also offered tax credits for households drawing either Social Security payments or military pensions, streams of income that most states do not tax.
The budget includes an additional $475 million for public education and a $1.23 billion package of infrastructure improvements that includes $350 million for adding a second track to improve service on the FrontRunner commuter rail system and a $20 million downpayment on improving access to the ski resorts of Little Cottonwood Canyon — by road or rail or gondola.
Lawmakers approved a process that will allow Dixie State University to select a new name, likely leaving behind a moniker that, for a great many people here and around the world, brings to mind not the Red Rocks of southern Utah but the racism of the Confederacy. Facing retrograde feelings from some in the St. George community, House Bill 278 took far too long to work through the process and tasks the school with re-running a broad process of input-gathering it has already performed. Still, the measure is progress and Gov. Spencer Cox should have no trouble signing it.
A pair of bills that would have improved education by empowering students were, unfortunately, not approved as presented.
Senate Bill 163, requiring additional steps to make campus life safe, was passed, but not before a provision that would have created a panel of students from all state public universities to oversee the process was removed. Too many lawmakers, apparently, feared that such a body would be “too liberal” and be overly concerned with “equality.” Can you imagine? And House Bill 338, which would have lowered the voting age to 16 for local school board elections, was overwhelmingly voted down in the House.
Lawmakers were sharp enough to kill a bill that would have banned transgender females from competing as girls in schools sports. A proposal that would have kept secret the names of finalists for university president positions also died.
The way members of the Legislature tried to deal with the ongoing effects of the pandemic was a low point in the session. Rather than actually do anything to improve public health and safety, now or over the long term, lawmakers preferred to express their frustration with the prolonged interruption to our lives by passing bills that pretend the disease isn’t really here. Cox should veto them both.
Senate Bill 195 would curtail the ability of the governor and public health officials to make emergency orders in the face this or future pandemics, while House Bill 294 would proclaim that the existing mask mandate will end on April 10. Not because the need will have gone away, necessarily, but because lawmakers are tired of doing the right thing for the right reason and want to pretend they have the power to make it all go away.
The Utah Constitution says that legislative power belongs both to the Legislature and to the people. As happens nearly every year, lawmakers moved this session to make sure it belongs ever more to the Legislature and less to the people.
House Bill 136 will, unless Cox vetoes it, make it more difficult for the people to use their constitutional power to initiate or repeal legislation through a petition drive and referendum, as they have increasingly done on issues such as Medicaid expansion, medical cannabis, gerrymandering and, most recently, beating back a seriously regressive tax “reform” package.
The bill would prohibit paying hired petition-carriers by the signature and require them to wear badges identifying themselves as employees rather than volunteers. The argument that it would make it harder for out-of-state monied interests to influence the process in Utah is not without merit, but the fact that it would mostly limit the power of Utah voters is more important, and more obviously the point, and the reason why HB136 is a bad idea.
As is House Bill 197, which would narrow the window during which Utah voters can change their party affiliations. It is another bill sold on a mostly fabricated idea, in this case that Democrats are flooding to switch to the Republican primary and highjack the GOP’s selection process. What it really would do is make it harder for most voters to have any say in who runs the state.
The good news is that the Legislature killed Senate Bill 205. That’s the bill that would have allowed any political party (*cough* Republicans *cough*) to end the petition path to a primary election and require all candidates to go through the antiquated caucus/convention system.
Another bill that should draw the attention of Cox’s veto pen is House Bill 297. That’s the one that would create an new, and unjustifiably secret, Colorado River Authority to, er, carry our water into an expected fight with other states over allocations from the over-allocated Colorado River. The future of Utah’s allocation of water from the shrinking river is worth addressing, but the portions of the bill that exempt the authority from open meetings and open records laws won’t earn the process much trust. Secrecy just makes the process more confrontational that it should be, and feeds the already reasonable fear that the whole thing is just a front for promoting the multi-billion-dollar Lake Powell pipeline, which the other basin states rightly oppose.
One of the more notable accomplishments of the session was House Bill 347. That’s a bill that, following the advice of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, streamlines and concentrates the job of serving the homeless, and reducing their number, through creation of a board, headed by a director who reports directly to the governor.
Lawmakers also put up a new $50 million toward the effort which, together with the reorganization, was enough to inspire a group of the state’s philanthropic leaders to commit $730 million toward preserving existing affordable housing and related efforts.
Cox should not only sign this bill. He should resolve to fill the director’s position with a skilled, experienced and bold administrator who won’t let official Utah turn its eyes away from this human tragedy any more.