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The Utah legislative session is over, but plenty of work lies ahead

From COVID-19 to education, legislative politics continues

SHARE The Utah legislative session is over, but plenty of work lies ahead

Gov. Spencer Cox talks about Utah’s 2021 legislative session during a press conference in the Gold Room at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 5, 2021.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The 2021 general session of the Utah Legislature ended a week ago ... but, rest assured, legislative politics continues on. We review some of the ongoing controversies.

In his State of the State address, Gov. Spencer Cox suggested that he would veto more bills than his predecessor. What are the ramifications should he do?

Pignanelli: “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones.” ― Calvin Coolidge  

The gubernatorial veto is the kale salad of lawmaking. Few enjoy the taste, but all benefit from the steely nutrition.

My sentiment for this constitutional prerogative was developed through 35 years of public service and lobbying on Capitol Hill. I believe the occasional veto enhances deliberations and strengthens both elected branches. First, a well-used veto pen provides legislative leaders a tool to persuade recalcitrant lawmakers to modify their beloved bills or face defeat at the governor’s desk.

Secondly, the dynamics of a veto override session prompt coalition building. Legislators search for allies to override the rejection, while the governor befriends factions to sustain his decision. (Even the minority party can join in the fun.) Both sides promise to review the specific issues to curry support. Such machinations foster strong public policy deliberations.

Then there is the necessary public relations component that a veto reminds voters their representatives are engaged in an important democratic activity.

Gov. Cox and his staff are fielding numerous requests for this action. Among other considerations, they will analyze the Senate and House vote counts and the possibility of an override. (Note: I have several clients that may pursue, or object to, a veto of legislation.)

Thus, a veto is the necessary vegetable that strengthens the body politic.

Webb: Some of us like to watch a good political fight. But we aren’t likely to see a lot of sparks fly between the governor and lawmakers. Surprises always pop up, but most of the potential disagreements, at least the major ones, were ironed out (or died out) during the session.

A few bills are usually vetoed after every session, some for technical reasons. But on a number of big issues, including executive branch emergency powers, Count My Vote and transgender issues, legislators and the governor did some talking and compromising. The bills either died in the legislative process or differences were worked out.

That’s actually a good way to govern — even if it’s boring. It once again demonstrates that good governance and problem-solving occur on the state level, while dysfunction and hyperpartisanship continue in Congress.

What were key legislative achievements? Which will most benefit Utah families and business?

Pignanelli: The serious infusion of dollars into the public education system will help teachers and parents with their students who suffered through the pandemic. Direct expenditures and bonding will fund numerous construction and transportation projects. This assures to maintain growth, especially with a potential downturn looming. The mandate for legislative involvement in long term emergencies will help future generations.

Webb: It was a very good session, especially considering it occurred during a year of fighting the pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn. Rather than retrench, lawmakers were able to make important investments in education, infrastructure, affordable housing, parks and many other areas.

Utah’s biggest challenge continues to be rapid growth. Lawmakers were wise to invest a lot of money to ensure a good quality of life for future generations. And the teacher bonus was a nice gesture to dedicated educators who have been stretched and stressed over the last year. 

There are always things to quibble about. I wasn’t a big fan of the modest tax cut, although it was targeted pretty well. Most recipients won’t even notice it. The money could have better been spent to further bolster education, especially teacher salaries.

Because of the pandemic, many lawmakers felt 2020 was a never-ending series of legislative activities that spilled into the 2021 session. They are rightfully exhausted. But interim committees and a redistricting special session are ahead this year. What is likely to be reviewed and studied for the remainder of this year?

Pignanelli: The always evolving fields of technology, financial services and health care will be studied — possibly fostering legislation. Recalibration of state agencies will be occurring, including positioning of metrics to monitor government efficiency. Of course, the redrawing of political boundaries will haunt the minds of our elected representatives, culminating in a fall special session. Watch for this entertaining topic in future columns.

Webb: Redistricting will be the big issue this year, and it will be historic, with an independent redistricting commission recommending district boundaries for legislators, Congress and the State School Board. The interaction between the independent commission and the Legislature’s own Redistricting Committee will be something to watch.

Utah is going to get a big chunk of money from the federal COVID-19 relief legislation (although probably not as much as we deserve). Depending on how prescriptive the spending guidelines are, a special session could be required to appropriate that money. That might mean more money for infrastructure because one-time money should not be spent for on-going programs.    

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.