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Lawmakers should get their priorities straight

Some people list Christmas Day or their birthday as their favorite day of the year. I like the day after legislators pack it up at the end of another 45-day session and go home.

Woo-hoo! Today should be a state holiday.

There's no question that the Legislature serves an important function, tackling some tough issues with which only it can deal. Balancing and allocating the state's budget, education reform, which new fee to assess and which existing fees to raise yet again — those are tasks best dealt with in a big-picture process by the legislative body.

But I always sleep a little better when they're done for the year. And I find that while I'm an admirer of our political system's structure in general, many of the decisions made during any given legislative session are, to me at least, simply unfathomable.

First, I simply don't understand why we need hundreds of new laws every single year. It seems to me the law we need most is one that says no new law can be passed until an old law is repealed — or at least assessed to see if it's needed.

We feed into that by determining how effective we think a legislator is based on what measures he or she successfully pushed into law. I'm only half joking when I suggest some sort of cap on the number of laws on the books, since it would at least force lawmakers to decide what's really important and what's not.

That would also help them focus early in the session on what they must accomplish. Early on, they traditionally pass the little "who-cares" matters and let the big issues simmer. Which would be fine, except that the big decisions should not be made with a sense of urgency, pushed through because there's no time or set aside to deal with "in a future session" for the same reason. The last few days of the session are always chaotic.

The process contradicts everything we know — and try to teach our children — about efficiency and productivity: prioritize, do what MUST be done first, then move onto what's optional.

I do like the fact that the discussion on certain controversial bills, like the pitched battle between banks and credit unions or the debate on tuition tax credits, is vigorous and even somewhat protracted. It seems a few bills rise to the surface each year and demand closer attention than others; not trying to consider hundreds of bills would allow more time to discuss the key issues.

I don't like the fact lawmakers opt to micro-manage just a little bit more of our lives every year. (It must be a human trait. They showed they don't like to be told what to do, either, when they decided to make it harder for citizens to get initiatives on the ballot.)

A good portion of what they do is tinkering. I'll never forget the year that one legislator wanted to establish a task force to look at what foods can be purchased with food stamps, with an eye toward making a list. He was outraged, he said in a committee meeting, that single mothers were able to buy Cap'n Crunch Cereal with their food stamps.

Much of what they discuss is just that silly. And time-consuming.

Fortunately, not all of that tinkering passes. But it, too, takes up time that could be spent addressing the issues that are important, like the aforementioned state budget, education reform, providing adequate medical care for people with disabilities and more.

One inexplicable case of tinkering that seems to have survived was the decision not to fund a spokesman for the Department of Health. Because of deadlines, I'm writing this a few hours before the session formally ends. But I've been assured the chance the spokesman job will be funded is nil to non-existent. Why that department was singled out eludes me.

The Department of Health is one of the largest departments in the state and has huge impact on and interaction with the general public. It seems an odd decision to me, given all the concern about the potential for bioterrorism and the need to protect public safety, not to mention disease-related illnesses like the pending arrival of West Nile virus.

The department spokesman does more than answer questions from reporters, though I'll certainly miss having someone to call when I need an answer. That individual is tasked with keeping up with what's going on in the department and informing the media about important changes, occurrences, policies. That's generally how the public finds out what's going on. Maybe I'll just call one of the other departments' spokesmen to see if they know.

Still, it's not the first time lawmakers have done something odd, is it? Not even the first time this year.


Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by e-mail at lois@desnews.com