Opinion: What Utah lawmakers did — and didn’t do — for the Great Salt Lake and controversial issues
The success of the 2023 session will depend on nature, the details of how conservation funds are spent, what voters decide about education in 2024 and the overall condition of the economy in coming months.
The Great Salt Lake is a lifeline for the Wasatch Front, Utah’s most populated area. It generates winter weather that replenishes the water supply and also serves as an important way station for migratory birds. It supplies salt and magnesium and generates millions in outdoor recreation.
Because the lake has dwindled to precarious levels, it’s fair to judge Utah’s 2023 legislative session primarily on what it did to protect the lake and reverse its decline.
Those results are mixed.
In 2022, the Legislature spent a half billion dollars on water preservation and the lake. This year, they added another $427 million, and they created a Great Salt Lake commissioner and the Great Salt Lake Commission, which would oversee a trust for lake improvements.
Accountability is good, especially with so much at stake. The commissioner’s office will give a focus to the state’s efforts. We are concerned, however, with language in the bill that would keep some of the commission’s records private.
Lawmakers put more money into a program to help people switch their lawns to more water-friendly options such as desert landscaping. They also kept homeowners associations from preventing people from doing so. They put money into programs to help agriculture interests to use water more wisely. That includes lining canals and ditches to prevent water seepage.
At the same time, however, they failed to pass a ban on outdoor watering from Oct. 1 to April 25 each year, which would have attempted to send the water saved into the lake. That idea died after water districts objected out of worry for private water rights.
Those rights may seem irrelevant if the lake continues to shrink.
Also, lawmakers rejected a resolution that would have set a benchmark lake level at 4,198 feet, which the sponsor said was the level experts set as a minimum for the lake’s normal ecological function. Without a goal, it is hard to account for how well the state’s efforts are working.
Nature intervened during the legislative session, dumping large amounts of snow on the state and lifting the lake’s level by 18 inches since November. It is important, however, to note that the state’s drought monitor still designates 89.2% of Utah as being in a moderate drought, and 48.7% in a severe drought. It took many years of dry weather to put the lake into its current condition, and it will take years of wet weather to save it by natural means.
The state cannot afford to get this issue wrong. Regardless of current weather conditions, Utahns need to make water conservation and enhanced runoff a way of life.
Among the more concerning developments this year was the emergence of a tactic that essentially holds a popular proposal hostage to one that may not be as popular. Earlier in the session, Republicans tied a $6,000 pay raise for teachers — a popular plan — to passage of a private school scholarship program — something reminiscent of the vouchers plan voters rejected in 2007. The measure passed early in this session.
Then, as part of a massive tax-cut package, they tied the elimination of the state’s sales tax on food — a popular item — to a proposal to end the state’s long-standing requirement that nearly all income-tax funds be dedicated to education. Because this requires changing the state constitution, voters will decide next year whether this becomes law.
Republicans obviously hope the popularity of the food tax overwhelms any concerns voters have about changing education funding, but this tactic sounds a lot like the type of Washington politics local politicians have long despised.
Speaking of taxes, lawmakers approved $400 million in tax cuts, plus $239 million in other revenue cuts. They lowered the state’s flat-rate income tax to 4.65%, down significantly from its original 5% years ago. They cut the gas tax, which is growing increasingly inefficient as a way to fund roads, by 2 cents per gallon. That’s a significant shift from five years ago, when lawmakers asked voters to approve a 10 cent increase in the tax — a proposal that failed. Significantly, that plan was tied to an increase in education funding — a possible harbinger of trouble ahead for plans asking voters to approve two items tied together.
And speaking of education, state lawmakers did add $578 million in ongoing revenue and $339 million in one-time funds to education budgets. This represents a nearly 20% increase which, regardless of how someone may feel about a private-school scholarship fund, is an impressive amount.
Lawmakers did plenty more during this session, including adopting a colorful and eye-catching new state flag. They took on other culture war topics with new laws on abortion and transgender surgeries, passed during the opening weeks of the session.
But Utahns will be impacted most by tax changes and the future of the Great Salt Lake and other key waterways.
As if to add an exclamation point to all of this, the web research site Wallethub.com this week ranked Utah as having the seventh lowest overall tax rate in the nation. Its vehicle property tax is the lowest in the nation, and the income tax — again with the burden of public education — ranked 27th.
Low taxes allow for greater discretionary spending in the private sector, which makes economic prosperity easier to achieve, baring tough economic times brought on by Washington overspending or other factors beyond local control.
Utah’s legislative sessions are difficult to judge in March, because it’s hard to predict unintended consequences. The fate of this one will depend largely on nature, the details of how conservation funds are spent, what voters decide in 2024 and the overall condition of the economy in coming months.
As always, it’s easier to make spending decisions during years of plenty, and the $1.25 billion surplus available in this session certainly qualifies as plenty.
Utah’s part-time lawmakers deserve thanks for their hard work. For the most part, they seemed to represent the concerns of their districts well. Time will tell how well they really did.