Members of the Utah Legislature, who are to begin their 2022 regular session Tuesday, may well assemble nagged by the feeling that they are, in the words of possum-philosopher Pogo, “confronted with insurmountable opportunities.”
Some of those will be opportunities to meddle, pose and posture on culture-war wedge issues that shouldn’t concern them or anyone else. There are other matters, such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, on which state officials have long since reached their level of incompetence and should leave to others.
There are, however, issues that cannot and should not be dodged, avoided or kicked down the road. And some in the legislative body have shown glimmers of understanding what they are and what needs to be done about them.
The most obvious matter before the state is so because it is literally visible from space. Though not quite as clearly as it once was.
House Speaker Brad Wilson is leading a growing awareness that the Great Salt Lake is in trouble and needs our help. Losing the shrinking body of brine, which has lent its name to the state’s largest city, county, baseball team and news organization, would be more than awkward. And it would affect more than the lake’s native species and extractive industries.
Exposing the lake bed to the westerly winds would stir up generations of waste, including toxic metals and decayed brine shrimp, that would blow across the Wasatch Front and beyond, into the skies and the lungs of a community that already has more than its share of bad air days — including, a couple of times last summer, the worst in the world.
The situation also demonstrates how everything in our natural and human environments are intertwined. Shrinkage of the lake is clearly tied to the state’s wasteful uses of its limited supply of water, bad habits that should not be made worse by building dams on the Bear River or anything else that would further reduce the flow of water.
The dusty lake is not the only threat to our air quality. Everything from the growing number of autos to construction standards that are not fully up-to-date, along with the state’s irrational devotion to the fossil fuel industry, conspires to threaten the very quality of life that has attracted so many to come or stay here.
It is well past time for studies. It is time for action. Water conservation rather than “development.” Active air quality monitoring and regulations. Most of all, a simple recognition that, not only are fossil fuels on their way out, but also that Utah just happens to be perfectly situated to be a global leader in sustainable energy technologies including wind, solar and geothermal, a boon to not only our lungs but also our bank accounts.
The Legislature has proven that it has no competence in dealing with the pandemic, absurdly declaring an end date and giving itself the power to stop people who really know what they are doing from doing it. But lawmakers can be about the business of cleaning up the mess, most importantly by helping the part of our culture that was already in the most need.
Our system of public education — traditional and charter, colleges but particularly K-12 — has been hard hit by coronavirus. Even when whole schools haven’t had to close as a precaution, individual classrooms and students have been denied their full, and irreplaceable, opportunity to receive the education that is necessary to their healthy academic and emotional growth.
A state that is as flush as ours is with state and federal revenue should make strengthening the schools its top priority, doing many of the things that should have been done anyway. Smaller class sizes. Modern classrooms with better ventilation. Nurses, counselors and other professional support personnel in every building.
That good fiscal situation has, of course, tempted many in Utah’s political class to reflexively call for a cut to the state’s already regressive income tax rate. But that’s the wrong tool for the job. Such tax cuts make some sense when an economy is sluggish, but Utah’s is booming and its growing pains — as noted above — include water shortages, bad air and slammed schools, solutions to each of which will cost money.
If lawmakers really insist on labeling themselves as tax-cutters, more appropriate channels include a removal of the sales tax on groceries and adding an earned income tax credit for low-income working families. Both would put money into the hands of those most in need of it.
To concentrate on the important stuff, legislative leaders should make it clear that they have no time for fiddling around with wedge issues that create more heat than light. No symbolic or hurtful message bills or resolutions attacking critical race theory, censoring library books, attacking transgender Utahns, attempting to seize federal lands or narrowing the opportunity to vote.
We urge the Legislature to take advantage of the state’s historically strong financial position and make investments of lasting value for the people of Utah.
The Utah Legislature is not always known for its responsiveness to the people, and too much of the real decision-making takes place behind closed doors. But it has created a robust online presence that anyone with internet access can use to follow bills, listen in on committee hearings, watch debates and votes on the Senate and House floors, figure out who is representing you and send them your thoughts.
The first door for all of that is le.utah.gov.
These lawmakers work for you. Keep an eye on them. And tell them what you think.