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Tough issues ahead in final week of Utah legislative session

Lawmakers are grappling with tax cuts, emergency powers and a host of other issues.

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The Utah flag waves in the wind at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. Frank Pignanelli and LaVarr Webb review a few major upcoming issues from the Utah Legislature, including emergency powers, a budget surplus, infrastructure and tax cuts.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The Legislature will adjourn “sine die” in one week. Many of the major issues are now distilling toward resolution — or facing further study. (The technical phrase is “kicking the can down the road”). But Utahns can feel proud that lawmakers accomplished much during a pandemic and in uncertain economic times. We review a few major issues.

During the session, lawmakers wrestled with a number of policy decisions fostered by the pandemic. These include setting parameters of the emergency powers provided to the governor and local health departments. Is the Legislature jerking the governor’s chain, or is this no big deal?

Pignanelli: “Emergencies have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded.” – Friedrich Hayek   

Regular maintenance on an automobile (i.e., tuneup, oil change) is absolutely necessary to prevent catastrophe. Similarly, the engine of state government needs frequent evaluation by lawmakers to ensure efficient driving. This is especially imperative in times of crisis.

A classic example occurred last year. Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox assembled impressive individuals to develop an amazing blueprint in response to health care and societal demands during this difficult time. But economic harm was transpiring. The Legislature created the Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission, which utilized the business acumen of lawmakers to insure a well-balanced plan of recovery. The result is the best economy in the country.

The legislation pushed by Sen. Evan Vickers allows flexibility for state and county health officials the first 30 days of a crisis. But beyond that, a structure is in place to ensure appropriate safeguards on overreaching authority. The pandemic taught us a successful outcome depends upon heavy reliance on health officials, along with strong engagement by executive and legislative elected officials.

As with drivers and their cars, citizens rely on the evaluation by experts as to needed repairs in government.

Webb: This was supposed to be a hot issue sparking a big executive/legislative battle. But it fizzled amid a flurry of negotiation and compromise. Don’t you just hate it when two branches of government actually get together and work out differences?

Now the Legislature ought to follow its own example on another burning issue and negotiate a mutually acceptable agreement with Count My Vote/SB54 supporters. A current bill, SB205, would gut SB54, which opened up the candidate selection process to all voters. SB205 would allow political parties to give total control of who gets on the primary ballot to a relatively few convention delegates, excluding hundreds of thousands of voters.   

This issue promises to be far more divisive and destructive than the fight over emergency powers. SB205 sends a message that mainstream Republicans aren’t welcome in the party. It will dry up party fundraising from prominent Republicans and community leaders. It might also spark a new multimillion-dollar ballot initiative campaign that would impose a direct primary election and eliminate the caucus/convention system as a means to nominate candidates. 

It’s not too late to negotiate and compromise.

Last week, with final revenue projections tallied, lawmakers revealed what was expected: A budget surplus of over $1.5 billion. There’s also talk of bonding for infrastructure. What’s likely to happen in the final week?

Pignanelli: Yes, there’s a huge surplus, but not a windfall. Much was created by eliminating additional appropriations approved in 2020 and cutting the base budget. So just backfilling program deficits created a year ago removes a substantial chunk of this awkwardly titled resource. Demands of education and Medicaid expansion are increasing and will be the focus of additional resources.

There is a strong push to bond for capital projects, to keep the economy humming. Some lawmakers are nervous about the crunch of debt and other obligations in a potential future downturn. Critical items easily funded with one-time dollars are likely beneficiaries while on going activities will receive closer scrutiny.

Webb: Infrastructure is a safe and effective way to spend surplus revenue that may not continue in the future. Infrastructure spending invests in the future, boosting Utah’s economy and generating future tax revenue. If hard times arrive, it’s much easier to cut back infrastructure spending than money spent in other departments boosting program budgets and hiring people. Utah’s debt burden is modest and bonds are quickly retired. The state’s overall financial standing is a reflection of solid, frugal management and a strong economy.  

Lawmakers will apparently grant a tax cut. Is it meaningful, or just a token gesture?

Pignanelli: Utah may be the only state to provide some relief — a significant compliment. Further, these tax cuts are focused on certain demographic groups that have a greater need, rather than some small general reduction.

Webb: With economic uncertainty ahead, this was not the year for a broad tax cut. But with a large surplus, a relatively small tax cut targeted to help families, military retirees and low-income elderly, is appropriate.

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