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GOP HAS HEAVY DISAGREEMENTS ABOUT THE WISDOM OF LIGHT RAIL

The light-rail controversy in Salt Lake County and Utah will be interesting to watch.

And to some degree, it will reflect the ongoing troubles between some rank-and-file Republicans and their GOP state and federal officeholders.Going way back to GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter's tenure, there has been friction between some grass-roots party activists and Republican leaders. In Bangerter's case, some Republicans were disappointed, even angry, over his record 1987 tax increases.

I remember attending one GOP Central Committee meeting where a southern Utah member bluntly asked Bangerter if he was a Republican or not. Bangerter said he was, don't doubt it.

Now we have the Salt Lake County GOP Central Committee and the state GOP Central Committee both adopting resolutions this year opposing light rail.

Yet we have U.S. Sens. Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch strongly supporting light rail and an 80-20 federal/state split to pay for it.

It's not unusual for elected officeholders to be nagged and angry at local party members for opposing them on certain issues. More likely as not, the officeholders dismiss the rank-and-file's objections as uninformed or misguided meddling.

And considering the history of Utah GOP politics where an incumbent U.S. senator, governor or House member never faces a serious challenge from another Republican, the incumbents have little to worry about when they anger significant members of their party elite. Bluntly put, it just doesn't matter; there are little or no political problems that accompany such snubs.

But Utah Republican legislative leaders aren't so immune.

Unhappy party members, while perhaps not translating into intraparty challengers at the district level, do have an impact.

For one thing, legislators are much closer to the rank-and-file. They see them in their neighborhoods, at the store and at church services. Legislators raise funds on the local level, too.

House Speaker Mel Brown, R-Union, lives in an area that will be bisected by UTA's light rail.

When quizzed about the two central committees' votes, Brown quickly pointed out that the state GOP convention did not take a vote on light rail, either in its platform or a separate resolution.

But Brown also acknowledged that he doesn't see any GOP legislator taking the lead in trying to make light rail work financially should the federal government step away from the 80/20 split funding.

Rumor had it that there was going to be an anti-light-rail amendment proposed at the state GOP convention, but former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn helped head that off by writing a letter to all state delegates saying inaccurate information was provided the state central committee on light rail and that without that information maybe the central committee wouldn't have acted like it did.

Whatever the case, the anti-light-rail movement seems to have found a home among some rank-and-file Republican Party members.

And if Hatch, Bennett and GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt aren't listening, some GOP legislative leaders are.

It may be that light rail is a smart thing to do. That future-minded GOP leaders are wise to turn aside the barking of the rabble.

But if UTA or others bring requests for state funding for light rail to the Legislature, expect some GOP lawmakers to get an earful from some of their Republican constituents. And expect them to listen, as well.