Tribune editorial: Utah lawmakers throw rocks at local governments rather than help them and their communities

Constitutionally, the state has a great deal of power over local governments. That doesn’t mean the state always knows best.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The site of a possible legal homeless camp near I-15, on Wednesday, December 27, 2023.

Poke a member of the Utah Legislature, and you’ll likely get a speech about how the states, not the faraway federal government, should be making more decisions. State officials are, after all, closer to the people and more likely to understand their needs.

That makes some sense. Until you see those same lawmakers fall all over themselves to interfere with the ability of local governments — counties, cities and school boards — to make decisions in the best interest of their communities.

Constitutionally, the state has a great deal of power over local governments. That doesn’t mean the state always knows best.

It does mean that the state has the duty to face problems, and fund programs, that are beyond the capacity of one city to face effectively.

Our legislators could help local governments do their jobs, serving the constituents they have in common, but the state lawmakers would clearly rather throw rocks instead.

Fund the governor’s program for facing homelessness

Gov. Spencer Cox sees that the severe shortage of affordable housing in Utah is a problem that affects many communities and requires attention, and funding, at a state level.

His program calls for appropriations of $193 million to create more emergency shelters, preserve existing housing stock, provide mental health care and other services. It’s a bold move.

The immediate reaction of legislative leaders was, sadly, cool. But Cox is correct that homelessness is a problem that won’t be solved with piecemeal approaches. His plan has broad, bipartisan support, not only from affected local governments and activists for the homeless, but the Salt Lake City business community as well.

We are at a tipping point where we could get homelessness under control. Or we could find our community well on its way to becoming another one of those West Coast cities with streets clogged with homeless camps.

Except our politicians won’t be able to blame the Democrats.

Our cities need the help the governor wants to provide. If legislators are worried about spending that much money, they can always retract appropriations for such silliness as buying coal-fired power plants, leveling forests and killing wolves, fighting national monuments and sponsoring a presidential debate that likely won’t happen.

Let Salt Lake City manage expensive sports venues

No sooner had the Miller family business empire announced plans to attract a Major League Baseball franchise to Salt Lake City, and build a massive stadium-entertainment district on North Temple across from the State Fair Park, than the Utah Legislature moved to steal home base.

Lawmakers are pushing legislation to create another one of their special land-use authorities for the baseball development, one that would nonsensically shove aside Salt Lake City’s rightful authority over development and taxpayer support, if any, for the project.

These odd ducks seem designed to insulate projects from public input and oversight. They are run by boards appointed by state officials, which may or may not have any regard for local priorities and stand beyond the reach of voters.

The Tribune Editorial Board enthusiastically supports the idea of the MLB in SLC generally, and on the west side specifically. But we see no reason why the city’s RDA (Redevelopment Agency) can’t handle the project.

The RDA is managed directly by elected members of the City Council. They are more likely to balance the joy of a hopping new entertainment district with concerns for proper land use and fair tax burdens. And they would likely see to it that tax revenues from the development go to support city priorities, especially on the west side, including public safety and affordable housing.

Another bill would allow the city to create and, mostly, run another development district for a new downtown arena for the Utah Jazz and/or a hoped-for National Hockey League franchise. Better, but it might still impose an unneeded layer of state oversight.

If state lawmakers want to be a part of these sports ventures, they can buy a ticket, like the rest of us.

Stop making the job of running school districts more difficult

Clearly, a dominant faction of the Utah Legislature just doesn’t like the whole idea of public education. Lawmakers don’t have the nerve to kill the beast, but they seize every opportunity to torture it.

This year, lawmakers have approved a bill to allow so-called “microschools” — unregulated pop-ups that are exempt from basic licensing and testing requirements, beyond the reach of local elected school boards and often untouchable by municipal zoning codes.

Combined with the $8,000-per-pupil voucher system approved last year, and already in line for a boost in taxpayer support, the apparent scheme is to further undermine the public education system — which will remain responsible for most of our children — by founding and funding nickel-and-dime competitors that will have no discernible responsibility to either their students or their communities.

Potential for abuse, of students and of the taxpayers, is rife.

All this on top of a series of state tax cuts that mean little to the average household while depriving education and social services of $640 million over three years.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have also passed absurd legislation that would ban books from public schools statewide if just three local school boards, or at least two school districts and five charter schools, found a book unacceptable.

This heavy-handed move toward “uniformity” (read: fascism) ridiculously seizes power from most local elected school boards and hands their responsibility over to a few districts that are most vulnerable to the know-nothings who fear thought and diversity.

The governor should veto these measures. Though there’s little hope of that, given that he signed the bill that banned diversity programs from public schools, no matter what local school boards and their communities might think.

Into this toxic mix, lawmakers have also thrown an absurd bill to allow public school districts to retain volunteer, unlicensed chaplains. This is clearly an attempt to let the bishop’s nose of organized religion further into the tent of public education, where it does not belong.

This bill may yet be slowed by the sudden realization, voiced by state Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, that not all of those chaplains would necessarily be Christian, but might represent the Church of — Could it be? — Satan!

Keep the calendars of public officials a public record

It’s not that the state doesn’t have a responsibility to create some guardrails for the way local governments work. It does.

One proper way to exercise that duty would be to kill a bill that would allow state and local government officials to keep their official calendars under wraps.

Where public officials go and who they meet with in the discharge of their duties is clearly the public’s business. The people are already at a decided disadvantage compared to power brokers and power seekers with direct access to our elected and appointed officials.

Maybe by buying them tickets to Major League Baseball games.

We deserve to know just who has the ears of our public officials.

What you can do

You can reach Gov. Spencer Cox through his website, governor.utah.gov/contact/, Senate President Stuart Adams at jsadams@le.utah.gov, and House Speaker Mike Schultz at mikeschultz@le.utah.gov. Or find your own lawmakers at senate.utah.gov/contact or house.utleg.gov/contact.

Also, make use of The Tribune’s new Bill Tracker service.

You are the “demos” — Greek for “the people” — in democracy. Do your part.