Opinion: The important legislative document you probably haven’t heard about
Usually, lawmakers announce proposals and plans as the session progresses. This document upends this tradition by courageously establishing accountabilities at the beginning
The Utah Legislature is one week into the 2022 session. Usual deliberations regarding the budget and taxation commenced immediately, along with laws regarding the pandemic. However, prior to lawmakers convening, an unprecedented and important document was released — the House Majority Caucus revealed its “Policy Pillars.” We review potential long-term impact of these stated legislative priorities.
The Policy Pillars contained in a House leadership press release outlined some expected priorities, such as water conservation, education innovation, sustainable growth, etc. But the accompanying document, “The Utah Way Forward,” is an impressive, glossy, explanation of how these leaders intend to achieve their vision. (Available at: https://house.utah.gov/2022majoritypolicypillars/) Will this fairly detailed, substantive approach to solving the state’s challenges improve legislators’ focus and produce better results?
Pignanelli: “To give a direction and a specific sanction to the general sense of the community is the true end of legislature.” — Edmund Burke
“Geezers” and “fogeys” are less kind descriptions of the many decades of experience LaVarr and I claim with legislative activities. Since this is not our “first rodeo” we can verify the House Pillars instrument is beyond novelty — it is noteworthy.
The document is important for what it articulates … and for what it ignores. A nonpartisan theme runs throughout the text describing issues and painting broad solutions. The first section focuses on water conservation and the Great Salt Lake. There are omissions (i.e. reform in higher education), yet the breadth and scope is impressive. Hot social issues are not mentioned.
Usually, lawmakers announce proposals and plans as the session progresses. Pillars upends this tradition by courageously establishing accountabilities at the beginning. The authors invite citizens to comment, thereby further enhancing Utah’s strong participatory legislative process.
Thankfully, the Pillars proposal is valuable in demonstrating old dogs (like LaVarr and me) can learn new tricks.
Webb: It is difficult for part-time state legislators to provide a forward-looking policy vision on the top issues facing the state. It is usually the governor, with his senior staff, cabinet and thousands of state employees, who takes the lead in setting the state’s policy agenda. And Gov. Spencer Cox has done a good job outlining a vision for the state.
State legislatures usually focus on current crises and day-to-day issues, rather than demonstrate farsightedness and long-term planning for future generations. They are by nature more reactionary than visionary due to the part-time nature of their jobs and the many immediate problems facing the state. They collectively enjoy the spotlight for 45 days, but the governor dominates the rest of the year.
But the House Majority Caucus Policy Pillars document shows that House leaders are attempting to be more influential in setting the state’s agenda, rather than allowing the governor to take primacy in the “vision stuff.”
The Policy Pillars and supportive material clearly, succinctly and pragmatically outline top issues facing the state and the House GOP commitment to focus on and resolve them. In this agenda, the House Majority mostly avoids cultural wars and hot-button, divisive, partisan “message” issues. That’s actually quite remarkable.
If this strategy is pursued and maintained, will House and Senate lawmakers change the dynamics of political interaction with the governor, state agencies, the business community and citizens?
Pignanelli: Although generated by the House, Pillars covers issues that have been the center of activity for many senators, as well. Their united action will reaffirm the Legislature remains more than a responsive entity, but a group that can solidify behind common vision.
In December, Cox pronounced a well-crafted and equally ambitious set of objectives. But Pillars sends a signal to the executive branch and agencies that lawmakers expect a greater role in developing state government solutions to challenges. Business and community activists will respond accordingly.
Webb: Certainly, lawmakers are taking a more proactive role. But the governor, with his “bully pulpit” and legion of experts and leaders, has a larger say, especially because the executive branch carries out legislative policy and writes the detailed rules and regulations accompanying new statutes.
What would be even more powerful than the House Majority manifesto would be a joint House/Senate/Governor vision document outlining mutual policy priorities, and a path forward for the long term. However, there is too much natural tension and distrust among the branches of government and bodies of the Legislature for that to occur. And it’s good to have some competition among these groups.
Why do so few Utahns know of these policy statements, and will that change?
Pignanelli: For decades, Utah has been honored by multiple awards for excellent management and efficiency. Governors and department heads have eagerly, and appropriately, collected these trophies. Yet, none of these recognitions would have occurred without all the pesky demands by lawmakers for efficiency and accountability.
Utah is an incredible place to live and work directly because of the unheralded, tireless work by hundreds of lawmakers for many years. Hopefully Pillars will correct this unfairness.
Webb: The Legislature is becoming more sophisticated with communications, but still lags. It’s far more difficult for 104 independently elected lawmakers to collaborate on communications than it is for the one-person governor, who commands immense resources, to effectively communicate. If every House Republican amplified the Policy Pillars document through their newsletters and social media channels, they could have a real impact.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: email@example.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.