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Opinion: What is the long-term fallout of the Legislature’s recent session?

They changed the name of Dixie State University and redrew political maps — two things steeped in controversy and passionate feelings

The word “Dixie” appears on a bluff in St. George.
The word “Dixie,” painted on the bluff in St. George, is pictured on Friday, April 9, 2021. State lawmakers and the governor changed the name of Dixie State University to Utah Tech University during a special session last week.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The Legislature’s recent special session produced substantive results — and emotions — on critical issues for Utah. We review how those two days of legislating will impact Utah politics over the long term.

The special session was originally convened to finalize new boundaries for congressional, legislative and state school board districts. But a number of other items consumed lawmakers’ attention, including changing the name of Dixie State University, bail reform, modifying the status of the Intermountain Power Agency and providing exemptions to employees from the federal vaccination mandate. Overall, was the Legislature successful in balancing competing interests or will there be negative fallout?

Pignanelli: “What the Legislature giveth the Legislature can taketh”Rep. Joel Ferry, R-Brigham City.

As an engaged observer of the legislative process (aka lobbyist), I have the advantage of a holistic view. This is in comparison to good citizens focused on a particular matter. For example, many concerned with redistricting or vaccination exemptions felt the Legislature succeeded or failed because of specific actions. But a comprehensive examination reveals this special session was one of “equilibrium.”

The new boundaries for congressional districts were subject to controversy and partisan attacks. Yet, the new legislative and school board districts received bipartisan support with little commentary. Many southern Utah residents were frustrated with the university name change, while most rural citizens applauded the revamp of Intermountain Power Agency.

Numerous local employers demanded vaccination exemptions to retain employees, but others were nervous with the concept. Lawmakers excluded any employer with a federal contract — a substantial number. Other employees were understandably frustrated having to choose between state or federal law compliance, but the courts may make that moot. The bail reform legislation was the picture of political equanimity as all stakeholders made concessions to achieve a consensus bill. Citizens frustrated with congressional redistricting supported the university name change.

Equilibrium occurs when opposing forces are balanced. A semblance of harmony pervaded the recent special session because there were results for most citizens to contemporarily like and dislike.

Webb: Democrats and liberal activist groups hate the congressional redistricting. But I think moderate, commonsense Democrats (like Ben McAdams) still have a shot at winning. It will depend on the quality of candidates.

And the districts will change. With the rapid growth of high-tech businesses in northern Utah County and southern Salt Lake County, that region is changing politically and growing a bluish tint. Young, hip tech workers tend to be more liberal, more focused on environmental issues and civil rights, offering Democrats a chance.

As I’ve written previously, I fully support the Dixie State name change. It will be good for the university. I understand the opposition and the nostalgia for the old name. I loved my time at Dixie College in the early 1970s. Perhaps I was naïve, but I honestly didn’t even think about the racial connotations of the name. I also don’t recall any racist occurrences, like students wearing blackface or groups holding “slave auctions.” But those things certainly did occur and, whether it was intentionally racist or not, it was wrong.

The name change is needed. Society has dramatically changed since the 1970s. And we have vastly improved with regard to racial sensitivity. The old name wasn’t meant to be racist, but it doesn’t work for students graduating and seeking employment nearly 50 years after I did. We evolve, we get better, we need to acknowledge past mistakes. Lawmakers did the right thing.

What long-term political consequences will result from the special session?

Pignanelli: Since the adoption of our beloved Constitution, allegations of “gerrymandering” have rarely, if ever, mattered in a subsequent election. So, threats of retaliation are hollow. Many businesses are grateful the Legislature provided them a safe harbor in dealing with unvaccinated employees. However, if the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the Biden administration, there will be employers frustrated they were forced into a difficult position. Coupled with other contingencies (i.e. the pandemic, inflation), this could affect support of candidates.

Webb: Let’s not forget that Utah is a Republican state, led mostly by mainstream, sensible leaders. We enjoy a terrific economy and excellent quality of life. Utah had four GOP members of Congress before the session and after the next election it is likely to be status quo. Utah’s Legislature balances budgets while taking care of state needs. Problems are addressed and solved. Citizens are pleased with the direction of the state, while disgusted with federal dysfunction. Politics isn’t going to change much.

Any benefits or setbacks for Gov. Spencer Cox?

Pignanelli: Legislators absorbed most of the attention and heat leading to and during the special session. No bill violated principles articulated by Cox during the campaign or his inauguration. He shrewdly, and quietly, signed them into law. The advantage is that he will receive some credit from others and only a smattering of blame.

Webb: The governor did just fine in the session. It made no sense for him to veto the redistricting legislation or other measures passed. The governor actually gets along pretty well with the Legislature, despite the normal tension and different perspectives. He’s smart enough to know when to be visibly out in front, in the driver’s seat, and when to negotiate behind the scenes and let other leaders be the focus of attention.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired small farmer and political consultant. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.