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Opinion: 5 things Utah lawmakers have done well through the years

Utah isn’t the only state where people sometimes cringe when the Legislature convenes, but Utah has put some systems in place that work extremely well

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Gov. Spencer Cox delivers his first State of the State address in the Utah House chamber.

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.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

New York Times columnist Gail Collins once wrote, “It is generally not a good idea to dwell on the strange behavior of state legislators, since it leads to bottomless despair.”

With Utah’s Legislature about to begin its general session, there will no doubt be moments when her judgment will seem vindicated. But, over the past 126 years, Utah lawmakers have created at least a few systems that do their job as well as those in any state, and now seems like the right time to point them out.

Legislative appropriations — Congress and most states have appropriations committees that make spending decisions. A few people work out the details of the budgets and decide which programs get funded. Spending plans are finalized with only a few details debated; there’s just not enough time to go through them line-by-line.

In Utah, though, every member of the House and the Senate sits on one of seven joint appropriations subcommittees. Each of them is given an allocation of funds from the Executive Appropriations Committee, made up of party leadership. As the sessions begin, each of those subcommittees goes through a list of spending priorities for state government.

The system was put in place in the 1960’s, when Haven J. Barlowwas president of the Utah Senate. A few years ago, I spoke with him for a Utah Foundation podcast.

“Under this system,” Barlow said, “the very first year that you are elected a senator or representative, you will have a slot on the appropriations committee and you will have a major role in determining the appropriation for a certain segment of the state budget.”

Barlow continued, “After the very first year ... that legislator becomes an expert on some segment of our state government.”

Barlow turned 100 years old a few days ago. This system is remembered as the signature accomplishment of his 42 years of legislative service.

Judicial appointments — In Utah, district and appeals court judges are nominated by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. That nomination is made after considerable scrutiny by other lawyers. The Senate also solicits public comment before a confirmation vote.

In many other states, judges campaign for office in partisan elections. That means they have to raise money, and that’s where the process gets problematic. Heather Thuet, the current president of the Utah State Bar, put it this way in a Utah Bar Journal article:

“One of the great benefits of practicing in Utah is I don’t have to worry about going up against an attorney whose firm made a bigger contribution to a judge’s campaign than mine.”

Utah voters still have the opportunity to decide whether judges should be retained in office, and there have been a few cases over the years when they’ve been tossed out.

Vote by mail — As Utah instituted its current vote-by-mail system over the past decade, the state made a remarkable discovery. Our present system increases voter participation. More people are willing to fill out the ballot and send it in than braved the weather and transportation challenges to get to the polls in prior elections.

Though vote-by-mail has some critics, it also has its champions. At the top of that list is Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, who is responsible for the state’s election office. When I spoke to her by phone in November, she rejected the idea that vote-by-mail gives one party an advantage over the other.

“I suppose if you’re of the attitude that only people who think like you should be able to have access to the ballot, maybe there’s some argument there, but that’s certainly not my view,” she said.

Henderson says one reason vote-by-mail is so widely accepted in Utah is that it started slowly. A few counties and jurisdictions adopted it first, and others saw how well it worked. Now it’s the statewide standard.

Weighted pupil unit — The WPU, as it’s called, is the way the Legislature has chosen to fund public schools, with the intent of giving every student in every district the same opportunities. Each district is required to raise revenue through local property taxes. Once that’s done, state appropriations, mainly from the income tax, make up the difference. This school year, the total per pupil is about $8,500.

Almost everybody agrees that’s not enough. Utah has climbed out of last place in per-pupil funding for its public schools only in the past couple of years. But since the 1970’s, the WPU formula has tried to give districts as different as Piute and Park City a similar share of state resources, unlike some other states, where local revenue makes all the difference in the level of school spending.

Legislative website — When I first came to the Utah Capitol in 1979, the only way you could read the text of a bill was to go to an office on the fourth floor and get a printed copy. A “status sheet” would come out once a day that showed where the bill was in the process. But changes happen so rapidly on legislation that both were outdated almost immediately.

Today, at le.utah.gov, you can not only see changes being made to bills and resolutions in real time, but you can listen to or watch the debates. Ordinary voters routinely make their voices heard by remote connections to committee meetings. If you’re interested in a particular bill, the system will send you an email any time there’s a vote or changes are made to the text.

Legislators also list their email addresses and phone numbers on the site, and my experience has been that most of them respond promptly to messages from reporters or constituents.

One final note: Through the years, most reporters have had little interest in the prayers that begin the floor sessions each day. When my son was serving with the U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan, though, my attitude changed. The daily appeal for our armed forces became personal, and I’ve appreciated it ever since. It’s just one more thing Utah does well.

Dan Bammes is a longtime radio news reporter and anchor in Salt Lake City. He’s heard on KSL Newsradio.