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Utah lawmakers show how to legislate effectively amid a pandemic

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Gov. Spencer Cox delivers his first State of the State address in the Utah House chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. As the Utah Legislature completes its third week in session, Frank Pignanelli and LaVarr Webb provide their perspectives.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The Legislature just completed its third week in session. The COVID-19 crisis is impacting the lawmaking process, like every other institution in society. We provide our perspectives.

How is the pandemic impacting lawmakers’ deliberations and the ability of the public to observe them?

Pignanelli: “COVID has acted like a time machine: It brought 2030 to 2020.” — Loren Padelford, vice president of Shopify

As a lawmaker during the 1996 legislative session, I labored with my colleagues to generate initial steps to digitize legislation and other documents. Exhibiting dinosaur tendencies, I did not own a computer at the time and was blissfully unaware of benefits to such newfangled ventures.

Soon, the Legislature developed an award-winning website that exponentially expanded public observation into their deliberations for more than two decades. But to have an impact, lobbyists and the public still interacted on a personal basis. Any thoughts about virtual attendance were the dreams of science fiction. That future has arrived.

The Legislature has more than fulfilled its commitment to providing public access to deliberations, whether in a safe environment at the Capitol or through electronic means, during this pandemic. Most lawmakers are accommodating discussions with constituents, lobbyists and the media. Of extreme importance, legislators can participate — and residents can testify — in a committee hearing without leaving their home. Such contributions are actually encouraged. Many lawmakers published emails, newsletters and YouTube videos explaining how constituents can observe and share their opinions.

However, these hybrid procedures are not stress free and can be difficult for legislators, lobbyists and activists. But the pain is shared equally, soothed with a genuine effort to make the process work. 

The benefits of virtual lawmaking are slowly maturing. Consequently, dinosaurs like me are adapting — to avoid extinction.

Webb: Thankfully, I’m only monitoring a few legislative issues this year as they are debated in committees and on the floors of the House and Senate. I’m doing it all remotely from my farm as I watch wild turkeys in my yard, the toms strutting around and fanning their tail feathers to impress the hens.

I believe legislative leaders have done a great job opening legislative proceedings to interested Utahns across the state. Remote access is not perfect, but it’s really quite good. Post-pandemic, those who want to be at the Capitol in person will be able to do so, while many others will engage from home or office.

In the meantime, I get to compare strutting lawmakers to strutting turkeys.

In addition to the needed activities to directly respond to COVID-19, how has the pandemic changed the focus of legislative priorities?

Pignanelli: Telehealth — electronic conversations between patients and medical providers — was once an intriguing but minor activity. The pandemic instigated a blossoming of this health care delivery component. The Legislature is now wrestling with issues including consumer protection and payment as this activity will be a permanent fixture. The amplified use of technology is prompting multiple deliberations regarding privacy, content censuring, safeguarding privacy, etc. Overseeing public and higher education is happening through a different prism. A reexamination of how government communicates and interacts with citizens is occurring.

Webb: The biggest priority is to defeat the virus without destroying the economy and reducing individual freedom. On the latter point, legislators will likely attempt to rein in the executive branch’s use of emergency powers. That may provide some drama. Gov. Spencer Cox has already hinted at vetoes if lawmakers try to curtail executive branch authority.

A second big priority is to take advantage of what we’ve learned from being forced to work remotely and do almost everything online. If lawmakers help enable and institutionalize telehealth, telework, telelearning and remote access to government services, we can reduce highway congestion and pollution, save money on commuting, reduce office costs, revitalize rural economies and address the housing crisis with more people able to live in rural communities where homes are less expensive. Never let a crisis go to waste.

Washington remains hyperpartisan, even during the pandemic. Is this the same for Utah lawmakers?

Pignanelli: A GOP supermajority guarantees passage of their priorities. Democrats are not shy in articulating their issues. But respect and the occasional joint effort is the absolute norm between the parties. Congress could learn much from our local leaders.

Webb: Utah politics is dominated and dictated by Republicans, but it’s mostly a benevolent dictatorship. Democrats sponsor important legislation; their bills get fair hearings and debate; they work with Republicans on a lot of key issues. So far, even the highly partisan issue of redistricting is seeing bipartisanship.

By contrast, President Joe Biden’s much-praised call for unity has fizzled like a popped balloon. His 40-plus executive orders that bypass Congress (including some that directly impact Utah) are anything but unifying. He listened politely to 10 Republicans who suggested a compromise on budget-busting pandemic relief, but don’t expect any meaningful concessions.

Division and uber-partisanship is even worse in Congress, which is almost irretrievably broken. Congress will never reform itself. It needs intervention and disruption by the states — a return to balanced federalism — to fix America’s governance crisis.