The Utah 2023 General Legislative Session commences Tuesday. Your columnists have a combined 85 years of experience monitoring, analyzing, lobbying (and with Frank, a decade of public service to) this annual convocation. In other words, we’re old as dirt. We’re compelled, as usual, to offer our geriatric insights and prognostications.

Utah legislators will be facing a broad array of issues, including saving the Great Salt Lake, distributing a massive budget surplus, tax cuts, education and contemporary social issues. What will be the major themes and why?

Pignanelli: “Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.” ― Chief Justice Earl Warren  

A significant number and diverse quality of citizens frequently engage in harsh critiques of legislators. These strong emotions erupt because the Utah Legislature is a pure form of representative democracy. Lawmakers’ actions are influenced from special interest groups, lobbyists, social media and — overwhelmingly — their constituents. Thus, legislative proceedings can be a rollercoaster ride. Yet, these dynamics are fundamental and necessary to a robust republic. Authoritarian regimes are devoid of such inconveniences.

State officials are reaping the benefits of educating residents on the Great Salt Lake’s potential extinction. Voters support mitigation to this disaster through massive funding of various programs. Utahns always prioritize public education and substantive additional infusions are expected. Strong organizations are pushing for scholarship or voucher programs for alternative schools and heated deliberations on this topic are predicted. Although controversial, there are pressures to clarify new abortion restrictions and prohibit transgender operations for minors that will garner attention.

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A major theme for legislative leaders is an efficient Legislature addressing tax cuts, water shortages, growth, public education and cultural concerns with conservative principles. Readers can expect the usual push against the federal government and progressive policies, but especially in legislation targeting Environmental Social Governance (ESG) investment policies.

The Legislature is a mirror of who elected them. Therefore, by adjournment every Utah voter will both appreciate and dislike the results — another sign of a healthy democracy.

Webb: Lawmakers have an ambitious agenda. Here’s my advice: Go forward with school choice, but do it wisely so the program provides a net financial benefit to public schools, where the vast majority of Utah children will always be educated. House Majority Leader Mike Schultz told me that’s the plan. Students who move to private schools will leave a large chunk of their per pupil funding in the public system. That, combined with a possible $6,000 raise for teachers, will leave public schools in better shape than previously.

Be smart with tax cuts. Don’t erode the tax base or you’ll regret it in the next economic downturn. Keep tax rates low, but the base broad. Look for ways to eliminate tax incentives, as proposed by Rep. Kay Christofferson. Continue the wise practice of spending surplus money on one-time, generational investments like infrastructure that will benefit our children and grandchildren. It makes sense to set aside surplus money to retire state debt.  

The focus on water makes great sense. Water conservation and development will benefit future generations. The era of taking water for granted is over forever.

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What are the internal and external forces that will be exerted on lawmakers during the decision-making process?

Pignanelli: Despite the contentions of contrarians, legislators value communications from their constituents. But judgements are also shaped by the current political, economic and social forces. Nagging concerns are percolating that the economy may flatline, which could limit new ongoing expenditures. National organizations on either side of controversial social issues will be engaged. Especially effective will be those local activists in both parties that capture the attention of their representatives.

Webb: Lawmakers must be responsive to their constituents and to ideological activists, while keeping an eye on the next election. Happily, the Legislature enjoys a fairly high approval rating, providing some political capital to be spent, and is led by sensible people. There will always be crazy bills and speeches, but in the end common sense will prevail (mostly).

Democrats have reduced numbers this year, so how will they articulate their positions with effectiveness?

Pignanelli: Shrewd Democrats understand the balance they must maintain of an aggressive, loyal opposition without antagonizing independents and moderate Republicans. Articulating positions attractive to the mainstream will require the same discipline for Republicans — ignoring the extreme forces within their party.

Webb: Republicans rule the Legislature, but they play nice with Democrats — except when they don’t. Democrats will have opportunities to sponsor important bipartisan legislation, but won’t make progress with liberal causes. 

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired small farmer and political consultant. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.