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Opinion: How on earth did masks become so political?

Although the recent mandate was issued in just two counties, it started a firestorm across the entire state. Part-time legislators are in frequent contact with their constituents, and they heard from them

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A man holds a sign supporting school mask mandates.

Zachary Noyce holds a sign in support of school mask mandates outside of the Utah State Board of Education office in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

At the beginning of the legislative session, lawmakers from both parties and houses outlined ambitious agendas regarding traditional issues of education, natural resources, transportation, etc. However, pandemic politics dominated attention and interaction with constituents in the early days. This dynamic illuminates features of modern politics. Thus, we provide our insights.

On the first day of the session, and without the usually required committee hearings, the Senate passed a resolution terminating the mask mandate implemented by Salt Lake County. The House followed suit a few days later. Why did the Legislature weigh in so quickly on this controversial matter?

Pignanelli: “Putting a piece of cloth on your face has become a culture war.”— Stephen Colbert.

I possess a good barometer of the intensity of a political storm — the number of friends and acquaintances yelling at me. By my standards, the mask controversy breaks boundaries. I encountered individuals howling at me in restaurants, during jogging and while I was in a “state of nature” in a post-workout shower at the gym.

Every person, regardless of demographics, is impacted by this matter. Thus, a mask has evolved from a medical accessory into a symbol of something much larger, (i.e. loss of freedom, trusting science, etc.). Neither side is persuading the other.

Although the recent mandate was issued in just two counties, it started a firestorm across the entire state. Part-time legislators are in frequent contact with their constituents, and they heard from them. Utahns upset with mask demands, or just tired of pandemic restrictions, outnumbered those supporting the government edict. The pressure was intense, compelling lawmakers to circumvent the usual committee process. Election year dynamics further complicated actions.

The pandemic will end soon. But the mask dispute highlighted the raw feelings on both sides, providing critical insight to future generations. Hopefully, no more showers are interrupted.

Webb: As I’ve written previously, I don’t support mask mandates. In many situations, masks should be worn, but it should be voluntary. But, as a conservative, I believe the best government is government closest to the people. I believe it was a mistake for the Legislature to override the mask decisions of locally elected officials. Let those local leaders answer to their own constituents.

This is a highly charged, divisive, emotional issue. By taking this action, lawmakers have elevated the issue up to the state level, subjecting themselves to the anger and vitriol.

There may, at times, be compelling reasons for the federal government to usurp state prerogatives. There may, at times, be compelling reasons for state government to usurp local prerogatives. But I don’t think requiring masks in public places rose to the level of something that demanded termination.

The “test to stay” program developed by the Legislature last year may be substituted with a statutory requirement that a school could only revert to remote learning if state leaders concurred. Why the dramatic change to this program?

Pignanelli: “Test to stay” was a good attempt to balance all concerns but based on older versions of the coronavirus. But, omicron overwhelmed the system, irritating parents and school officials. There is, as of yet, no substitute for the testing regime and remote learning is deeply problematic, so state leaders will drive the decision.

Webb: The capricious COVID-19, and its variants, have simply created a mess for schools and parents. Schools are struggling mightily and no easy solutions exist. Certainly, children need to be in school, but high omicron infection rates are wreaking havoc on the best-laid plans and policies. Teachers and substitutes are in short supply, and questions abound: Who should be in school? Who should be tested and when? How soon can infected students and teachers return? When should schools flip to on-line learning, and so forth.

I believe these decisions, to the extent possible, are best left to local school leaders and local school boards. Adding another level of bureaucracy at the state level will add to confusion and slow down what sometimes needs to be quick action.

The pandemic has produced massive amounts of federal funds and, combined with a hot Utah economy, has generated large budget surpluses. This is escalating talks regarding a tax cut. What is the likely result?

Pignanelli: As illustrated in speeches by Gov. Spencer Cox and lawmakers, there is a tug-of-war between them for an income tax cut or grocery sales tax credit. But these deliberations include important considerations by lawmakers as to the reality of the ongoing surpluses beyond 2022. So the amount of reductions will reflect the confidence by officials as to the short-term future of the economy. Many weeks to go before all the details are decided.

Webb: Republican lawmakers seem intent on cutting income taxes, which fund education. Democratic lawmakers want the sales tax on food eliminated. A better plan is Gov. Cox’s proposal for a food tax credit for low-income people. It makes no sense to narrow the tax base by cutting the food tax for wealthy people and tourists. 

Right now we, as Utahns, enjoy historically low taxes. The economy may be booming, but great fears exist that it’s a “sugar high.” We’re seeing that the world is very a perilous place and factors (like inflation) are looming that could dampen the economy. Now is no time for a big income tax cut.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Email: frankp@xmission.com.