The legislative session that ended Wednesday at midnight was among the most difficult in recent memory. Lawmakers knew going in that it would be hard. Few of them had lofty expectations when the session began. And yet, they succeeded in making it even harder than it had to be.
A long and divisive battle over whether to tax credit unions stretched through much of the session, ending finally with a half-hearted measure that limits their ability to make business loans and sends the entire issue into a two-year study by a task force. Considering this issue has been raging since at least 1999, it's hard to imagine what another two years will accomplish.
And a strong push to finally give Utah parents some educational choice through tuition tax credits died once again, due in large measure to a lack of support from Gov. Mike Leavitt. In fact, many of the recommendations from the Employers Education Coalition, appointed by the governor, were ignored or watered down, including one to provide at least $90 million more in funding to public schools. All in all, this was a disappointing session for Utah's schoolchildren.
It was a disappointing session, as well, for people concerned about the possibility that Utah may one day house hotter radioactive waste than what currently is stored at the Envirocare site in Tooele County. That one went to a study committee as well. And while people were encouraged that a hate crimes bill finally made it through the House, in the end it went no further, dying on a heap of misunderstanding, vague conspiracies and ignorance.
And it was an outrageously disappointing session for people concerned about gun violence. Rather than prohibit firearms at schools, lawmakers specified it is OK for a concealed weapons holder to carry a gun onto school grounds.
Yet, things could have been much worse. Democracy rarely results in perfect solutions. It often melds the desires of a state's many and varied interests into something that ends up doing little real harm and, at times, some real good. This Legislature managed to give Medicaid an important shot in the arm, it didn't raise any general taxes and it passed a liquor law that seems to make nearly all sides happy.
It was a typical session in many ways, but it will do little to increase public confidence or to erase what seems to be a growing cynicism. For one thing, the public now has learned that a promise from one Legislature has little effect on a future Legislature. Several years ago, faced with a popular statewide initiative to impose term limits, lawmakers hurried and passed a 12-year limit on their own terms. This year they repealed it, only three years before it was to begin forcing people out of office.
Four years ago, lawmakers made a big deal about preserving many of the state's dwindling open spaces. They set up a Quality Growth Commission and charged it with helping local governments acquire and set aside land. This year, they nearly destroyed the commission, deciding at the last minute to keep it on minimal life support.
That's the way it is in a republic. Tides are constantly shifting as new people come into office. Utah, however, suffers from a clear lack of political diversity. That often kept thoughtful debate at bay during this session, which didn't serve anyone's interests.