Tribune Editorial: Utah Legislature should drop the culture war stuff and face our long-term issues

Air quality, saving the Great Salt Lake and education should top this list this session.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Majority Leader Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs, speaks during a press conference to discuss the Utah House GOP priorities for the 2024 legislative session at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024.

“The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.” — Rabindranath Tagore

Members of the Utah Legislature will be tempted to spend their time and energy, in the annual session that begins Tuesday, on hot-button culture wars initiatives that grab headlines but do little to face the giant problems the Utahns face.

That’s because it is often easier to tell someone else how to do their job than it is to do your own.

Lawmakers are poised to meddle in the affairs of the state’s public universities (banning diversity efforts). Its local school boards (making it easier to ban books). A consortium of cities that owns a large power plant (extending a lifeline to coal production). But not to get serious about what should be the heavy lift items on their own agenda.

Or, if they do have specific plans, they aren’t telling anyone what they are. House Speaker Mike Schultz was set to meet with The Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board Thursday afternoon to explain the priorities of the Republican-controlled House, but he canceled at the last minute.

At the top of the list should be Utah’s system of public education, air quality and management of its limited water supplies, specifically the health of the Great Salt Lake.

As we have said before, the state’s public education system deserves the best support, and funding, we can provide. Another round of income tax cuts, or more diversion of income tax revenue away from education, are habits the Legislature should break.

Progress has been made on air quality issues over the past decades, but it has mostly been due to federal actions. Going forward, little will be done unless the Legislature leads the way.

It may cost money, taxpayers’ money and private funds. But no amount of economic progress is worth air you can’t breathe. Just ask China.

There is talk of using the likely scheduling of the 2034 Winter Olympics for Salt Lake City as a motivation for attacking the problem of the valley’s unsafe air — at times the worst in the country, if not on the planet. That’s a normal human way of looking at things, like only cleaning up the house when the in-laws are coming to visit.

But more than 2 million Utahns already face the nasty air found along the Wasatch Front, especially when winter inversions trap pollutants created by cars, refineries and other industry and keeping buildings warm and lit. Why should they have to wait?

Yes, nothing the lawmakers do will solve the problem overnight. But, as the saying goes, the best time to have done something about that was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

Tools in the kit include massively better mass transit options. Building codes that demand the highest energy efficiency. A quicker shift to electric vehicles and to cleaner fuels, for highway travel and for such machinery as the switch engines used in the state’s massive railroad yards.

The fact that the Salt Lake Valley sits in a natural bowl, where bad air is trapped for days or weeks at a time, is not an excuse to do nothing. It is a reason to do more.

Likewise, the state must get more serious about the preservation of the Great Salt Lake, for its own sake and to avoid the massive impact a dry lake bed will unquestionably have on our already polluted air.

Efforts to keep water from being diverted for agricultural and domestic use upriver must be redoubled. More efforts must be made to measure the impact of steps already taken, to make sure that money allocated to pay farmers to allow more water to roll on to the lake is going where it’s intended, and having the impact needed.

If nothing else, talk of building more dams along the Bear River, a major source of Great Salt Lake water, needs to end. And the folly of a pipeline from the shrinking Lake Powell to thirsty Washington County must be abandoned.

One other part of the Utah environment that needs defending is democracy.

Some lawmakers are pushing for an end to the state’s highly popular and successful switch to all-mail elections. Even though there is no hint of fraud or significant error in our balloting, some people have noticed that the far right of the Republican Party is less likely to win elections if more people vote.

Lawmakers should also end their annual efforts to exclude more voters from the primary election process, and stop the frequent moves to make it more difficult for voters to exercise their constitutionally granted right to place initiatives and referendums on the ballot.

And, if the Utah Supreme Court takes the action it should, and throws out the gerrymandered legislative and congressional districts drawn in defiance of the 2018 Better Boundaries initiative, lawmakers should finally get the message that representation matters.

But, most of all, what the Utah Legislature needs is you. The voters. Their constituents. Pay attention. Know who your lawmakers are. Track bills that you are interested in. Listen in.

And look sharp, as legislative leaders have a habit of rushing the most controversial proposals through the process, with little opportunity for the public to weigh in, in hopes that nobody will notice until it is too late.

Next week The Tribune will launch a bill tracker that will help you track legislation in near real time. With one click you’ll see whether it’s in committee, the house, the senate, signed or vetoed. We’re also going to parse technical legislative language, so you can easily understand what a proposal means. We hope you’ll use it to keep track of what’s important to you. And share it with others. Find it at sltrib.com/utah-bill-tracker.

Lawmakers, like anyone else, are more likely to attend to their jobs when they know the boss is watching.