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Opinion: Can a citizen Legislature solve Utah’s problems?

Utah is one of only 14 states that retain part-time lawmakers who must hold full-time jobs elsewhere. It’s also the most populous among those states. This year’s problems could challenge this tradition.

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The Capitol is surrounded by fog on the first day of the Utah Legislature’s 2023 session in Salt Lake City on Jan. 17, 2023.

The Capitol is surrounded by fog on the first day of the Utah Legislature’s 2023 session in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023. Utah’s part-time state legislature has begun its 45-day general session this week.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Utah is one of only a handful of states that retains a citizen legislature. That is, one in which each member of the body serves part time and receives minimal pay ($285 for each day they are in session, plus up to $100 in expenses for those who live more than 40 miles from the Capitol).

The beauty of this system is that lawmakers live and work among their constituents. They can’t leave home and hide behind the bureaucratic walls of full-time employment in a marble-walled Capitol. They know what average Utahns want because they confront them daily. Their decisions are instantly rated by vocal neighbors.

The downside is that the needs of a fast-growing state (Utah grew more than any other state between 2010 and 2020, according to the census) may become greater than part-time lawmakers can handle, especially when they meet formally in a yearly session that is confined, by the state constitution, to 45 days. 

So far, Utah is defying that concern.

The National Conference of State Legislatures categorizes 14 states as having citizen legislatures. Four of these, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota, have the most traditional of citizen lawmakers, with small staffs. Utah is listed among 10 other states with slightly more complicated legislatures, but nonetheless still part-time and low-paid. Utah is the most populous of any of the 14 states, and larger states tend to gravitate toward more full-time legislatures.

And yet, Utah typically rises near the top in any list of places to live and do business. As if to underscore this, WalletHub on Tuesday named Utah the best place to start a business in 2023. 

“A state that provides the ideal conditions for business creation — access to cash, skilled workers and affordable office space, for instance — can help new ventures not only take off but also thrive,” WalletHub said.

This doesn’t happen without governments, from city councils to the Legislature, creating conditions conducive to prosperity.

Utah lawmakers have no shortage of big problems to tackle during the annual session that began Tuesday. Despite impressive snow totals so far this water year (which began Oct. 1), they face the daunting challenge of saving a Great Salt Lake that has suffered two decades of below average precipitation and a population growth that has diverted water upstream.

Solutions to this enormous environmental problem will require innovative thinking and expertise. 

The state has a housing problem, fed by growth that has outstripped the supply of dwelling units, and that has been exacerbated by inflation and rising interest rates. Housing prices are too high for many families. 

Lawmakers have tended to blame Washington for much of this problem. In his speech to open the legislative session on Tuesday, House Speaker Brad Wilson blamed high interest rates and over-regulation, among other things. He urged local governments, in particular, to remove regulatory hurdles to new construction. And yet, there can be a fine line between unnecessary regulation and rules, concerning flood control, aesthetics and other concerns, that make this a challenging problem.

Education is always a concern in family friendly Utah, but it is particularly worrying now, with a general labor shortage hitting school faculties hard.

Tax cuts are on the minds of many lawmakers this year, with the state facing a combined surplus of more than $3 billion. But each tax decision, whether it concerns income, property or sales levies, comes with consequences. Not all tax decisions should be made with only economic development in mind. The sales tax on food, for instance, should be eliminated in an effort to help low-income families make ends meet.

These, too, are decisions requiring expertise.

We remain confident in the concept of a citizen Legislature, but we caution lawmakers to remain focused on the big problems and open to public input. Too often, lawmakers get diverted to meaningless “message bills” or to culture-war issues during their 45 days. 

Wilson told lawmakers Utah stands “at one of those rare moments where our choices will ripple for generations.”

We don’t doubt that assessment.

That kind of a pivot point requires the best and highest form of public service. Done right, this session could be a resounding triumph for the notion of the citizen Legislature and the value of having government remain as close to the people as possible.