Utah Legislature can do more good than harm: Here’s how, from the Editorial Board

Protect our water, air and schools. Leave culture war issues alone.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Work is carried out outside the house floor at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 4, 2022, during the final day of the Utah Legislature’s 2022 general session.

The 2023 edition of the Utah Legislature rolls into town Tuesday for its annual 45-day dash. It will all happen really fast, so we all need pay strict attention.

On arrival, lawmakers will find themselves in possession of a very large surplus of cash that — current and projected — could approach $5 billion. That may sound like a good thing, and it could be, depending on the decisions lawmakers make.

But governing can be more difficult when a jurisdiction finds itself flush with cash. Decision-makers find themselves facing many options instead of operating in an atmosphere of low expectations, limited to keeping the proverbial lights on for another year.

There are, of course, many other states that would love to have the problem of too much money. But money without a governing vision can lead to some very bad decisions.

In recent years, what passes for a vision among Utah’s elected leaders has included some worthy improvements, such as water conservation and improving public transit. But that has been all but overwhelmed by knee-jerk compulsions to cut taxes, underfund public schools and storm the barricades of divisive culture war issues from abortion to the rights of LGBT Utahns to picking pointless fights with the federal government over public lands.

Here are some things the 2023 Utah Legislature should attend to. And some things it shouldn’t.

Fund public education

The Utah Constitution earmarks all funds raised from the state income tax for education and social programs. That account is particularly flush right now, having finished the last budget year more than $1.2 billion in the black. We could pour every dime of that into public education and Utah would still be scraping the bottom on a list of states ranked by per-pupil spending.

There are rumblings from our Capitol that Utah legislators are looking at that positive bank balance and — instead of filling the eternal need for higher teacher salaries, more counselors and nurses and healthier buildings — are feeling their normal urge to cut income taxes and find ways to route public money to private schools.

School vouchers — even if they are called “scholarships” or some other benign word — are a way to rob our already stressed public schools for the benefit of a few families, most of them already paying private school tuition. Even with such a tax break, private school would remain beyond the reach of most low- to moderate-income households. There still will not be enough private school desks to make an appreciable difference, particularly in rural areas. And the public schools that will still be responsible for the vast majority of students will be further stressed financially.

All should be sympathetic to the notion that public education in Utah is in need of reform. That it lacks a grand vision of how to help an increasingly diverse student population become adults, citizens and workers in the 21st century. But bleeding the schools of funds, especially when we have the money at hand, is no way to realize that goal.

Protect our environment

Lawmakers, led by House Speaker Brad Wilson, have noticed the dangerous shrinking of the Great Salt Lake and have come up with plans and money aimed at reversing that trend. Some experts have warned that, unless we change our habits, the lake could basically disappear in as little as five years. We are already seeing increases in toxic chemicals in the air we breathe, a result of a dry lake bed giving up years of contaminated silt to the winds.

Saving the lake will require some serious investments and a major rethinking of how we measure, price and use water. Last year’s legislative session saw steps to better measure the water we use for agriculture and things such as golf courses. But we are a long way from making some of the necessary hard choices, including making agricultural operations feel the price of using water that should be going to our rivers and lakes.

The lake bed is far from the only source of toxic substances in our air. Automobiles, refineries, industrial facilities and homes all contribute. The Legislature can help by boosting its support for public transit, building a network of charging stations for electric vehicles, encouraging sustainable sources of energy that we could have in abundance and a revitalized power grid to accommodate them, updating building codes to more energy-efficient standards. We should be more worried about the health of people who already live here than in building more highways and warehouses.

Better tax policy

Lawmakers and Gov. Spencer Cox are eyeing yet another round of income tax cuts. The governor’s budget describes total tax cuts of some $1 billion, and all are looking at another reduction in the state’s flat income tax rate, this time from 4.85% to 4.8%. (It was 4.95% only the year before.)

Everybody loves tax cuts, especially legislators running for reelection on a record and a platform that brags about them. But Utah’s habit of making our flat income tax even flatter leaves working- and middle-class families with windfalls that might be enough for two movie tickets every month (popcorn not included) even as the public services they depend on fail to keep up with their needs.

If lawmakers are really worried about Utahns bearing an undue tax burden, they should concentrate the cuts where they will make the most difference. Reduce or remove state sales taxes on groceries. Stop taxing Social Security benefits. Introduce a refundable earned income tax credit or child tax credit for the benefit of those among us who already have a hard time keeping up.

The need for housing

It should now be clear to everyone that, if the private market could — or wanted to — eliminate the problem of homelessness and affordable housing in Utah, it would have done so by now.

Past efforts to militarize the problem, by launching waves of law enforcement sweeps of homeless encampments, provide no long-term solution, and recent efforts to bring a more service-oriented approach to helping the homeless have been scandalously underfunded.

Utah needs to embrace, and pay for, a housing-first approach to the problem. An approach that only works if provided housing comes with ongoing supportive services to help those in need sign up for whatever federal benefits they might be entitled to, receive whatever mental health and substance abuse treatment they might need and keep housing projects clean and crime-free, for the benefit of residents and their neighbors.

Stop fighting culture wars

Utah lawmakers in recent years have spent far too much time, effort and money pursuing fringe far-right goals that include criminalizing abortion at any stage of pregnancy and launching hateful crusades against the rights of transgender people.

Bills have been put forward to short circuit legal efforts to turn aside Utah’s anti-woman abortion ban and to ban reassignment surgery or other treatment for transgender youth. These are efforts that deliberately inflict pain on unfavored minorities for the amusement of a cruel but politically active fringe. And they do nothing to improve life for the vast majority of us.

Other absurd culture war battles include baseless claims of state authority over federal lands, resistance to basic public health requirements and — new this year — efforts to tell the global financial industry that it cannot value such things as environmental sustainability or inclusive management when it makes private investment choices.

And, of course, guns. Always guns.

It would be no infringement of real Second Amendment rights for our Legislature to adopt a red flag law that would allow court orders for the temporary restriction of demonstrably dangerous or suicidal people to possess firearms. And to make it illegal for those who already are not legally eligible to purchase guns to buy bullets, either.

Keep a wary eye

For all the criticism of Utah government that you will sometimes find here, the fact is that the Legislature does a very good job of making it possible for its constituents to keep an eye on what it is up to through the session.

The website le.utah.gov is a gateway to the language and the status of bills, committee hearings, floor debates and, perhaps most important, ways to find out who represents you in the House and the Senate and how to sound off to them on whatever you think is important.

Do your part.