The 2015 Utah Legislature will be remembered as historic because of the landmark compromise extending anti-discrimination protections for people based on sexual orientation and identity while also protecting religious liberty. That accomplishment, already being studied in other states as possible model legislation, overshadowed other successes and disappointments during the 45-day session.
That is a proper assessment. It came after much work by all parties with a stake in the outcome, but it also represented a rare and welcome display of good faith on an issue that has sharply divided much of the nation.
And yet those other successes and disappointments also were significant. It’s difficult to remember a session filled with more high-profile, difficult-to-resolve issues. And the significant disappointments, led by a failure to get a version of Gov. Gary Herbert’s “Healthy Utah” alternative to Medicaid expansion passed in the House, should optimistically be viewed as temporary setbacks. Both Medicaid expansion and prison relocation are likely to be subjects of future special sessions. Their resolution will test the political skills of Utah’s elected officials as they work toward solutions that reflect both the public will and matters of fairness and compassion.
It’s also difficult to remember a session in which lawmakers faced a strong economy — surpluses in ongoing and one-time funds totaled $739 million — and yet were so willing to raise taxes. Lawmakers passed a $75 million property tax hike to help fund education. That equals about $46 more per year for the average Utah family. They also reached a last-minute deal on a plan to raise gas taxes, turning them into a type of sales tax.
The education tax increase demonstrates the state’s willingness to deal with its perpetual problem involving overcrowded classrooms. Public schools will receive about $510 million in new funds. We would prefer a greater emphasis on free-market solutions to the state’s education challenges, but there can be no denying that extra funds, especially as they will be used to equalize spending among schools statewide, were needed.
Lawmakers also wisely decided not to end the assessment tests known as SAGE, which promise over time to help educators better understand how to improve education.
One disappointment, however, was that lawmakers did not decide how to change the way state school board members are chosen. Last year, a judge struck down the current method as unconstitutional. Utahns now are left wondering how the process will proceed in future elections.
The gas tax hike was needed in order to boost funding for transportation and transit needs. It also comes with a 0.25 percent local-option sales tax hike, to be decided in the future by voters in counties desiring it.
This increase should be seen as a temporary measure to meet the needs of a growing population. Traditional gas taxes no longer provide effective funding for roads, especially given the increase in alternative-fuel vehicles and new federal fuel-efficiency standards for gas-powered cars. Again, we prefer market-based solutions, and hope lawmakers will make this a matter of study for future legislation.
Also among the successes of this session was the decision not to change the Count My Vote initiative that provides an alternate path to the ballot for candidates who don’t survive the caucus selection process. This deal was reached in the 2014 session after supporters seemed on the path to placing even greater changes on the ballot.
By withstanding efforts to change that compromise, lawmakers preserved the good faith necessary to reassure any party involved in future negotiations with the Legislature.
Because of the nature of democracy and the limits of a 45-day session, lawmaking never can be considered final or complete. The 2015 Utah Legislature left much on the table, but what it accomplished was more than enough to vindicate the wisdom of preserving the part-time, citizen model of representative government. Utahns owe their representatives thanks.