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Give and take between Leavitt, lawmakers benefits Utah

When I used to cover the Legislature years ago I described the experience as something like walking into a dark tunnel for 45 days, and when you emerge . . . it's spring!

You have to be a real political/public policy junkie to closely follow the abstruse doings on Capitol Hill. The Deseret News no doubt provides significantly more legislative coverage than the average reader can absorb. In next Thursday's paper we'll wrap up the whole session, burning more than six full pages. Our web site, (www.desnews.com) will have even more information.We're committed to providing news and information that's important, that all of us should be reading, not just what's fun and interesting. The workings of government deserve to be watched carefully. Decisions made by Utah's 104 citizen lawmakers will affect every one of us.

So as the 1998 session winds down, here's my take on a couple of items, admittedly from a detached journalist perch.

- Lawmakers vs. Leavitt: When I worked in the governor's office, the Legislature just about drove me crazy. After having state government pretty much to ourselves for most of the year, it was aggravating to watch a bunch of part-time lawmakers with big egos charge in and mess around with our dearly-held programs.

It was like having your really grumpy mother-in-law move in for 45 days and rearrange your furniture and your life.

But now that I'm away from the daily battles and back in journalism, my perspective is broader. And having just passed off several young men on their Citizenship in the Nation merit badge, I'm reminded of something very fundamental: The doctrine of separation of powers makes a lot of sense.

Any good Boy Scout can tell you our Founding Fathers were smart guys. They didn't trust government and they didn't want to put too much power in the hands of any one person or area of government.

Understanding human nature, they knew that the three different branches of government would each strive for power and fight with each other, but out of that conflict would come the best government possible.

So even though Gov. Leavitt and the legislative majority are all Republicans, it's natural (and proper) that they disagree and do battle on a variety of issues.

So go ahead, Legislature, it's OK to fight with the governor (especially now that I'm not there). Try to out-maneuver him. Be smart and cagey. Play all your cards just right.

However, beating him isn't easy, as you well know. He's very careful about the positions he takes, saving his ammo and political capital for a few big items. On other issues, you might not be able to pick a fight with him, even if you try.

And he works incredibly hard on the issues he really cares about. He'll have a consensus formed before you even get started if you don't move quickly. He has an uncanny sense of timing and a political sixth sense about what the public wants and is willing to tolerate.

And he's smart and glib enough that he's able to define victory in such a way that even when he loses he wins.

But go ahead, lawmakers, take your best shot. Win a few for the Legislature. It'll be good for democracy.

- Growth and planning: The majority of legislators just can't bring themselves to look to the future and provide modest tools so local governments can manage growth a little better. Taking a "big brother knows best" attitude, they refused a couple of good initiatives that would have merely given local governments optional tools to make better planning and zoning decisions and protect green space and farmland.

The latest bill to die was sponsored by Republican Sen. LeRay McAllister and would have allowed counties to establish coordinating committees across various government entities. The committees would provide better communications, for example, among cities and non-incorporated areas, to avoid patchwork and conflicting planning and zoning decisions.

It was a very modest attempt to solve a big problem. In our crazy-quilt pattern of governments in the Salt Lake Valley, for example, one entity might do a thorough and visionary job of planning for the future. But if the entity right next to it has an entirely different philosophy or different plans for an adjoining chunk of land, we end up with a mess.

If McAllister's bill setting up a voluntary mechanism to better coordinate planning decisions can't pass this Legislature, then it's clear Utah lawmakers are going to provide very little leadership on growth issues.