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Guest opinion: As the legislative session begins, consider the importance of your civic engagement

SHARE Guest opinion: As the legislative session begins, consider the importance of your civic engagement
Members of the Senate gather for a special session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 18, 2018.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Data shows that civic engagement improves our communities and creates more responsive government while offering community members pathways to engage in discussion and policymaking to address public issues. Utahns have an important opportunity to get civically engaged to impact the issues during Utah’s annual legislative session, coming up from Jan. 27 through March 12.

Starting Monday, Utah’s state Legislature will gather at the state Capitol to debate, amend, pass or fail proposed state laws and to balance our state’s budget. The legislative process is open to the public, with opportunities to witness and participate in person or from home. The state’s legislative website makes the process particularly accessible by offering live and recorded audio of committee and chamber meetings and calendars, bill language, bill tracking services, Capitol campus maps and legislator contact information to the public.

Although Utah has one of the highest rates of volunteerism in the nation, Utahns have lagged in other forms of civic participation, such as voting. Yet voting and other forms of civic engagement strengthen both our communities and our democratic system.

The congressionally commissioned National Conference on Citizenship finds that communities with strong indicators of civic health — the way that communities are organized to define and address public problems — have higher employment rates, stronger schools, better physical health and more responsive governments. 

Other research shows direct relationships between civic engagement, health and well-being. Civic engagement builds social capitol, contributing to the social networks, norms and trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit. Members of civic groups are more likely to be physically active and more aware of opportunities to be physically active in their community. Engaging in meaningful civic activities can also help individuals develop a sense of purpose, which may promote continued civic participation.

Civic engagement varies by generation and levels of education. Today’s young adults may be less likely to participate in civic activities due to the lack of access to information on how to get involved and make a difference. By increasing awareness of the vast resources and opportunities available throughout Utah, we can strengthen civic health and give citizens nonpartisan, solution-based ways to get involved. 

Polling data indicates that Utahns have significant local and federal concerns. Beyond voting, there are other important ways Utahns can get involved between elections to impact the issues. Civic engagement in Utah is particularly needed as our state changes and grows.

Utah is in the midst of an unprecedented economic, demographic and cultural transformation that has its origins in national and international trends. Cumulatively, these trends have far-reaching implications for our future and require the effective reengineering of a broad spectrum of our investments from human capital — education, labor force development, etc — to our built environment such as housing and transportation. With increased civic engagement, government levels across the state can create more effective public policy and accurately reflect the wants and needs of their citizens, while Utahns can acquire skills and relationships necessary to thrive within our growing economy and communities.  

In addition, as Utah’s population grows and becomes more diverse, civic engagement will play an important role in shaping the next generation of leaders and their skills, confidence and connection to the communities they serve. 

Sustained community involvement is a positive indicator for future economic growth. Fortunately, the nature of our part-time citizen legislature makes the legislative process and its elected officials uniquely accessible to community members, allowing them to weigh in on important policy decisions. 

Any Utah resident can take simple steps to connect with their state representatives and senators to offer fact-based information, personal stories and professional expertise that can expand the conversation, change minds and sway votes. We call on all Utahns to turn their attention to the issues during the brief 45 day legislative session and take time to weigh in. Your voice is valuable and meaningful for shaping the future of our state.

Andrea Himoff is the co-founder and executive director of Action Utah, a nonpartisan community advocacy organization encouraging civic engagement in Utah.

Angela McGuire is a policy fellow with Action Utah, where she supports nonpartisan, solution-based civic engagement.