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Legislative highs and lows, Romney’s run and city/state intrigue

Mitt Romney ponders a question during the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 19, 2018.
Mitt Romney ponders a question during the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 19, 2018.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

With lawmakers busily adding pages to the Utah Code, Mitt Romney making an anticlimactic announcement this week and city leaders warily eyeing legislative ambition, there’s never a dull moment in Utah politics. Here are questions pondered by enquiring minds. Three weeks into the legislative session, how is the session going?

Pignanelli: “The legislator learns that when you talk a lot, you get in trouble. You have to listen a lot to make deals.” — Bob Woodward

Some lawmakers are commenting how constituents seem less interested in legislative activities this year, despite prodding through social media. The Washington circus is grabbing all the attention, so this perceived silence should be construed in a positive manner.

While the feds are busy congratulating each other for doing their job to avoid shutdowns, the Utah Legislature is performing some heavy lifting. Key lawmakers are intensely re-examining the business taxation system with a focus on 21st-century dynamics. While mind-numbing to follow, the results will be important. Also, Democrats and Republicans are partnering on a host of criminal justice, technology, health care and air quality issues.

Every session, the Capitol is flooded with thousands seeking state appropriations for worthy (and some questionable) projects. Increasingly, lawmakers are demanding quantifiable “return on investment” metrics from requesters. This is dramatically changing the budget process, especially from the top.

Speaker Greg Hughes, a founding father of Operation Rio Grande, speaks eloquently of data analytics and computer dashboards to ensure success of this important project. Senate President Wayne Niederhauser offers compelling efficiency principles while advocating for the toll road in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Political muscle must now be accompanied by an analytical brain.

Webb: Here are the valentines of the session: Sen. Wayne Harper and a lot of other forward-thinking lawmakers, along with transportation agencies and business groups, are transforming funding and governance of transportation infrastructure in Utah. SB 136 positions Utah for rapid population growth and will help prevent highway gridlock in the future. It is smart, progressive legislation that encourages multimodal transportation planning and will likely result in more much-needed funding for public transit. Niederhauser is also modernizing Utah’s tolling statutes to reduce congestion in Wasatch Front canyons and position Utah for the future. Nice job to all concerned.

Here are the session stinkers: Rep. Dan McCay is pushing the anti-John Curtis bill that would eliminate primaries in U.S. House special elections, throw voters off the party nomination bus and tie the governor’s hand in replacing a U.S. senator.

Here’s a novel idea: How about letting party voters choose party nominees?

Equally smelly is Rep. Mike Schultz’s bill that would reverse the will of voters if they raise taxes for education by supporting the Our Schools Now ballot proposal in November. It takes remarkable chutzpah to attempt to negate a vote of the people before you even know how the people will vote.

A final stinker is HB 148, which would eliminate the very small (1.75 percent) state sales tax on unprepared food at precisely the same time wise leaders are trying to broaden the tax base, not narrow it even more. The bill runs against every principle of good taxation policy. And it won’t make an iota of difference to low-income people.

If any of these bills pass, hopefully a gubernatorial veto will relegate them to the garbage bin of malodorous laws.

Mitt Romney is poised to enter the U.S. Senate race on Thursday. What are the local and national implications?

Pignanelli: Usually Americans ignore congressional elections outside their home state. But every generation offers a candidate who compels national attention as a possible game changer within their party (i.e., Robert F. Kennedy, 1968; Hillary Clinton, 2000). Romney is definitely in this category, as the GOP believes his gravitas will bend a worrisome direction in Washington.

Therefore, Utahns can expect extensive media coverage of the Romney campaign from the announcement to Election Day. A resulting positive is a new group of visitors will learn of Utah’s unique qualities — especially fry sauce.

Webb: If Romney runs a grass-roots, Utah-centric campaign up and down the state where he goes to the convention, really connects with Utahns and seeks to earn their votes, he will help other Republicans on the ballot (especially Rep. Mia Love), and we’ll feel like we’re electing a real Utahn.

If he runs an aloof, rose-garden campaign that relies on his star power and amounts to a coronation, he will still win. But it will be a big missed opportunity. Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant is a big development opportunity. But the state and city visions for the area might spark a power struggle. Is the Legislature going to pull rank on the city?

Pignanelli: Mayor Jackie Biskupski inherited a troublesome legacy. Many Utahns, including city residents, view City Hall as a bureaucracy slow to move and unresponsive to necessary changes. Realizing the economic potential of this area for industry requires vision and flexibility, which state leaders believe the city does not possess. The mayor is trying to modify this judgment but has years of baggage to jettison.

Webb: With a new international airport, a potential global trade port, new infrastructure associated with the new state prison and enormous trucking and freight rail operations close by, the northwest quadrant has unlimited potential for manufacturing, distribution and intermodal activities.

The fight will be over governance, with the state likely to create some sort of authority that might usurp city zoning and taxation. Watch for a compromise to emerge.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a 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 the president/CEO of the Special Olympics of Utah. Email: