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Retiring lawmakers leave after tackling big ideas

Election ballots in various legislative districts will be missing some familiar names in November when voters go to the polls to select their state lawmakers. Among those missing will be Wayne Niederhauser and Greg Hughes.

And they will truly be missed. I’d like to thank Senate President Niederhauser and House Speaker Hughes for their excellent service to all Utahns, over many years, and wish them well as they retire from the Legislature and move on to new chapters of their lives. They have served the state with great distinction.

In all, some 23 state legislators are retiring or seeking other offices this election year. They deserve our appreciation for many years of work and sacrifice. Service as a citizen-lawmaker really is unselfish public service. It is seldom glamorous, and it is often hard on families, jobs and professions.

We need look no further than the results of the recent legislative session as evidence of the excellent work of our legislators. While any of us can quibble, as always, about various aspects of the session, when all was said and done, the Legislature performed exceptionally well, taking steps to secure a bright future for Utah citizens.

In this session, lawmakers didn’t just tinker around with small matters. This was a "big idea" session. If there was a session theme, I would say it was to address structural reforms that will help ensure Utah’s success even as the state copes with rapid population growth.

Among outcomes of the session will be a stronger, better-educated workforce, an enormous economic development opportunity in Salt Lake City’s Northwest Quadrant, a new era for public transit funding to take pressure off crowded highways, and structural changes to create a better-balanced tax system while adequately funding education and transportation infrastructure.

That is a remarkable outcome for one legislative session. Lawmakers were able to rely on the comprehensive interim work of the Transportation Funding and Governance Task Force and the Inland Port Advisory Committee convened by Gov. Gary Herbert.

The inland port legislation is likely to be the subject of a special session to further address the concerns of Salt Lake City. But I am confident this "big idea" project will attract global interest and become a major producer of jobs and economic development for the state.

Lawmakers rather ingeniously produced several benefits by simultaneously improving education funding while restructuring transportation funding to make it more user-based.

Lawmakers took these actions to modernize Utah’s tax system:

— Allowed some growth in property taxes to occur as property values rise, providing more money for education. This is important because a tax imbalance was growing between sales, income and property taxes. Allowing modest growth in property taxes is crucial so that government services can keep up with population growth and inflation.

— Enacted a provision to make transportation funding more user-based by putting a non-binding measure on the ballot raising the fuel tax by 10 cents per gallon. That would allow more than $100 million in sales tax money currently used for transportation to be transferred to education. Funding for city and county roads would also increase. It is assumed that if voters support the tax boost, the Legislature will enact it.

— Slightly lowered the income tax rate to keep Utah’s tax structure competitive with other states and encourage economic development.

— Gave county governments additional flexibility to raise money for public transit, which is desperately needed to relieve pressure on congested highways.

In addition, by restructuring governance of Utah Transit Authority and creating avenues for more funding, lawmakers gave public transit a fresh start. Retiring lawmakers are going out on a high note. I’d like to thank them, and also those who will be staying on to deal with challenges facing Utah.