BOUNTIFUL — Whenever he’s addressed as an “elder statesman” — and it’s happening a lot lately — Kim Burningham has two thoughts in rapid succession: Why are they calling me that? Followed by, where did the time go?
Burningham will be 79 on his next birthday, even if he doesn’t look it. It has been only a few months since he left his position on the state school board, closing out a chapter in his life that began 16 years earlier. Before that, he spent 15 years in the state Legislature. In between, he wedged in a two-year term as executive director of the Utah Centennial Commission, in addition to serving on a number of ad hoc community involvement committees, including most recently as chairman of Utahns for Ethical Government.
All of the above has been in addition to his paying day jobs, first as a school teacher at Bountiful High School, where he taught speech and debate and directed school plays over a 27-year career, and after that, until just two years ago, as a communications specialist for Franklin Covey.
No one ever accused Burningham of being a slacker, or, for even higher praise, of being dishonest. This is a man who has championed education causes as rigorously and enthusiastically as anyone in state history and yet, as a legislator, he stopped accepting perfectly legal campaign contributions from the Utah Education Association because he feared someone might view them as a conflict of interest.
These days, Burningham and his wife, Susan, are settling into retirement in the same home in Bountiful they moved into 46 years ago, just a year and a half into their marriage. It’s the home where they reared their two sons, the home from which Burningham represented District 19 in the Legislature, and the home where they now welcome their eight grandchildren.
The Deseret News caught up recently with the elder statesman at his home and talked about his unique perspective on Utah politics.
DN: Thank you for the chance to talk today. Is it too soon to ask how retirement is treating you?
KB: I’m still getting used to it, to be honest. It really is true, I can’t imagine how the time went by so fast.
DN: Your professional career has been as an educator and communicator, but the public knows you for the many hats you’ve worn doing public service. How did that political “moonlighting” get started?
KB: When I was a younger man it never really occurred to me that I’d go into politics. I’m very much a product of right here (Bountiful). I was quite sheltered growing up. The first time I lived away was when I went on a (Mormon) mission to the East Central States — Mississippi, Kentucky and Tennessee. I remember the day I got off the bus in Memphis, Tennessee. I walked into the depot and there were two water fountains. One of them said “colored.” I remember thinking, why do they have colored water? What would be the purpose of that? Which tells you how naïve I was. This would have been 1955, just before the civil rights movement really got going.
DN: What happened later on to divert you into politics?
KB: In 1979, I was teaching at Bountiful High School, and one of my former students, David Irvine, the lawyer and brigadier general, knocked on my door. David was our representative in the state Legislature from this area of Bountiful, but Gov. (Scott) Matheson had appointed him to the Public Service Commission. So he resigned from the Legislature and came to my door one night and suggested I seek the appointment for his position. I’d never thought of such a thing and said no. Then, after two or three days thinking it over, I thought, well, maybe, then, finally, yes. I wound up getting the appointment and then ran for office seven times and served a little over 15 years.
DN: Once you got started, you couldn’t stop?
KB: I felt there were ways I could contribute. I’ve always been very interested in the education issues, and I’m interested in the process and the ethical side of things. Those areas struck my fancy and got my attention, and I never wanted to leave.
DN: If you could influence change in Utah government what would those changes be?
KB: I’ve thought a lot about this, and if I could wave a magic wand, there are five main areas where I’d like to see changes: 1. Reduce one-party domination; 2. Reduce partisanship in all phases of government; 3. Initiate campaign contribution limits; 4. Significantly increase support of education; 5. Minimize secrecy in political decision-making.
DN: Let’s talk about them one at a time. First, reduce one-party domination.
KB: I’m a Republican. I suppose I am and always will be. But I’m certainly not a conservative Republican, I’m more moderate, and the Republican Party has become so right-wing that they probably don’t claim me these days. So that’s where I stand politically, and even though I consider myself a Republican, and that’s the dominant party in the state, I don’t think it’s good for one party to have so much control. It really hurts us. We don’t have the checks and balances; we don’t have the questioning and the challenges that make our system work best. We don’t have a healthy opposition. Look at the recent debate over Healthy Utah. Isn’t it interesting that the Democrats were just inconsequential in the arguments. The division was in the Republican Party. The governor and the speaker of the House can’t agree, and they’re both Republicans.
DN: Do you see any solutions?
KB: I suppose the (LDS) Church ought to again come out and say, “Everybody who sits on this side of the chapel, you’re a Democrat, and everybody on that side, you’re a Republican.”
DN: You’re not joking?
KB: Oh, no, I’m being serious. The image in this state has developed that you’ve got to be a Republican to be a good (LDS) church member. At least that’s what I hear a lot of and what many people seem to think. The church has such a strong influence, especially in rural areas, where the influence is almost total. I talk to my neighbors, who don’t necessarily agree with the party platform, but they are Republicans anyway. I’m serious when I say I think it will take someone in the church to say it’s OK to be a Democrat. That happened in the 1890s, when statehood was the issue, and we were regarded as a one-party state. Only back then the one party was Democrat. As a provision of statehood we knew we had to be a less monolithic organization. The church leaders went throughout the state and said, you people who sit on this side of the aisle, you’ve got to be Republicans now. It worked then.
DN: Moving on to your second point: Reduce partisanship in all phases of government.
KB: Everyone seems to be digging in their heels more and more, and it’s not a healthy situation. We’re just too partisan. I was very much influenced by my 16 years on the state school board. In the early years, the board was not a partisan organization. I chaired it for seven years (2000-07) and I cannot tell you the political party affiliation of all the members I served with. Now some wore it on their sleeves and I knew, but there were others, I had no idea. It was never a matter of concern. But the school board, like so many other organizations, has become much more partisan, clearly, lately, and this whole strange system we have where a committee is selected and then a governor appoints two candidates and then they have an election has led to that in my view. The divide in politics is getting more pronounced, not less. We need to eliminate systems that contribute to the increased partisanship. I hope that’s what happens.
DN: Your third point: Initiate campaign contribution limits.
KB: I’d get rid of big contributions. I’d put a limit of no more than a few thousand dollars maximum. People have a right to contribute; they have a right to buy in, but there’s an increasing percentage of legislators who don’t get a cent from anybody except PACs (political action committees). That’s all they get. That’s all they need. If everybody had a limit, then that would reduce the overall amount of money being spent, and I think that would be a good thing. Of course, there is the legitimate complaint that limiting contributions means the wealthy would have an advantage because they can use all the personal funds they want. Because I don’t think constitutionally you can limit the amount a person can spend of their own money on their own campaign. Some people say we need to have publicly financed elections, so nobody spends any money of their own. I’d sure listen to that. I’d love to see a whole lot less spent on elections and a whole lot more spent on something else.
DN: Point No. 4: Significantly increase support of education.
KB: My whole life I was in the public schools. I feel like I’m closely allied to them, and I think the evidence is so clear that Utah, which once really laid it on the line as far as a percentage of personal income was concerned, has just gone down and down. We give a smaller percentage of our income now than we did 10 years ago. People are more interested in amassing their own individual wealth and less interested in contributing to the public good. Public good has many manifestations, but one of the biggest is educating all kids so they are competent and knowledgeable. I applaud Gov. Herbert’s effort this year to try to put more money into education, but he’s going to have a hard time getting what he’s recommending. We’re never going to be near the top in funding per pupil; we have too many children in Utah, but as Olene Walker used to say, “I just live for the day when we’re no longer in last place.” Let’s get off the bottom. We’re in the $6,000 to $7,000 range per pupil expenditure, and the average in the country is about $12,000. I’d like to see us approaching the average.
DN: Your fifth and final point: Minimize secrecy in decision-making.
KB: They threatened to kick me out of the Republican caucus when I started calling for opening caucuses to public examination. I used to sit in caucuses and hear colleagues vociferously argue why we shouldn’t do a particular thing, then when it was agreed not to do it, those same colleagues would ask to sponsor the opposite position on the floor of the House, just because it would be a help politically to do so. I think that kind of behavior is despicable. If you’re against something privately you better be against it publicly. My solution is to have all caucuses, with only a very few exceptions, open.