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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Issues worth watching in last 9 days of Legislature

Although the legislative session is still nine working days from adjournment, politicos are already scrambling to define the unusual tone on Capitol Hill. Here are some issues we're watching.

Is election-year politics playing a greater role this year?

Pignanelli: "A zoo offers the public … a form of idle and witless amusement, which compared to a visit to a penitentiary or a State legislature in session, is informing, stimulating and ennobling." — H.L. Mencken.

Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, the Democratic challenger to Gov. Gary Herbert, is utilizing the Legislature as a campaign tactic. He is taking shots in the media to paint the governor as a sycophant to right-wing extremists out of touch with mainstream Utah. This is a strategy to attract the independents and moderate Republicans Corroon must have to win in November.

However, the GOP response to this irritation is defining the session as lawmakers rally around the governor. Classic example is the legislation that allows Snowbird to be annexed into Sandy and provides opportunities for lawmakers (especially sponsor Sen. Curt Bramble) to rail against the "horrendous, burdensome county taxes" imposed by Corroon. Legislation that could help the mayor balance the county budget without increased taxes was quickly extinguished. Politicos believe the governor's recent line in the sand against a tobacco tax increase is a great "twofer." It secures a grumpy conservative base and builds a potential barrage against Corroon. Readers can anticipate Herbert supporters reminding voters the governor refused to raise any taxes in a recession while Corroon imposed a police fee.

The good news for Corroon is that some Republicans consider him a threat to be included in their stratagems. Congressman Jim Matheson is the only other Democrat in decades to achieve this status.

Webb: Election? What election? Would our politicians ever be so crass as to posture for the next election? Arch-conservatives seem to be on a roll. They are angry, vocal and highly influential with the Legislature. But the prospect of teacher layoffs, larger class sizes, early release of prison inmates, laying off Highway Patrol troopers and less access to higher education might just wake up the mainstream majority and give moderate Democrats plenty of ammo in the general election. Republicans in Salt Lake County, especially, might want to check the ingredients in the right-wing Kool-Aid.

Will any tax increases pass?

Pignanelli: Not in this election year.

Webb: It would be good public policy to boost the tobacco tax to the national average, a move supported by 80 percent of the people. The result would be fewer people smoking, fewer young people taking up the habit, reduced health care costs, fewer people afflicted by secondhand smoke. And it would provide a little money to shore up a few budgets that desperately need more funding. How could that be a political liability?

Is the public employee retirement fix in trouble?

Pignanelli: This issue faced a huge fight in the House. Teachers and unions, united with a strong coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans, were working to block the legislation this session. However, on the eve of the debate on Friday, most members of this coalition agreed to the terms of the reform legislation. Opponents could not demonize the well-respected, competent and politically ecumenical bill sponsor Sen. Dan Liljenquist and the momentum he created. GOP leaders wanted the matter resolved before the elections and pushed their colleagues to secure the votes.

Webb: I applaud the Legislature and Sen. Dan Liljenquist for tackling this issue head-on. The retirement system must be restored to sound actuarial health and Liljenquist's bills will do it firmly but fairly. Retirement and pension programs have taken big hits in both the private and public sectors. Public employees can't expect to be held harmless in tough economic times. Prudent fiscal management means we can't run up massive unfunded pension liabilities. It's tough medicine, but these are tough times. The Legislature should pass the legislation.

Will the Jordan School District get any money from the new Canyons School District?

Pignanelli: West-side Republican Jim Bird launched a terrific effort to recoup funds lost in the district split. This may happen one day, but not this year.

Webb: This battle between the haves and have-nots will probably be extended statewide with proposals to equalize funding in all districts. But the wealthy districts with strong tax bases will fight like demons to retain their money. With 500 layoffs looming in the Jordan District, will families start to choose where they live based on the financial health of school districts?

Will Sen. Steve Urquhart pass his sex education bill?

Pignanelli: In this election year, the legislation will likely remain stalled. However, it is a promising sign when a powerful Utah Republican sponsors legislation to drag sex education out of 15th-century confines. The senator and his allies are to be commended for this valiant effort.

Webb: Most sex education happens in the form of torrid tales the older boys regale younger Scouts with at Boy Scout camp — of what the older boys have seen, heard, read and experienced (and it's all accurate). I have no idea where girls get their education. I still think babies come from storks.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and a Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a Utah state tax commissioner. E-mail: frankp@xmission.com.