Commentary: What is the ‘Utah Way’? Depends On Who You Are

This article originally appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune.

If you are involved at all in Utah politics, you most likely have heard about the “Utah way” of doing things. But what exactly is the “Utah way?”

The New York Times referred to the firing squad as “a Utah way of death.” The arrival of Frontrunner ahead of schedule and under budget was described as being “kind of the Utah way.” Gov. Gary Herbert declared that “turning a blind eye and doing nothing” to help “our neighbors, our friends, and our family members” was not the Utah way, shortly before the House of Representatives rejected his Healthy Utah proposal. The phrase was used by political commentator Paul Mero to describe the Utah Compact and by Keith McMullin, CEO of Deseret Management, when referring to Utah’s business-friendly policies. Most recently, the Utah way has been trotted out when discussing the ballot initiatives during last year’s November election.

As the electorate was unwillingly subjected to having its voice as expressed through the initiative process overridden in the name of doing things the Utah way, it has become increasingly clear that the Utah way is actually just an empty phrase, ready to be filled with whatever meaning or principles the speaker desires. And in that vein, I believe this year’s legislative session has given us all a new framework through which we can evaluate the Utah way.

I don’t know how many times lawmakers said “Utah is a business friendly state” during the session. What I do know is that while Utah’s policies may be “business-friendly,” it too often comes at the cost of being “people-friendly.” Business interests always seem to come before the interests of the people who lawmakers are elected to represent. EnergySolutions showed that money talks, as they convinced lawmakers to allow them to import and store depleted uranium in the state, putting countless future generations at risk. The interests of gravel pit owners came before the health and local control of surrounding communities. Fossil-fuel industries continued to receive millions of dollars in subsidies and handouts even though many social programs went away empty-handed. Maybe helping business instead of people is the Utah way.

As a progressive, I normally don’t get my hopes up when it comes to the legislative session. But I thought this year would be different! A great bill prohibiting conversion therapy looked like it would sail through, but some lawmakers decided to disregard scientific consensus and put their faith in a few quack therapists who preferred the status quo. We finally had a hate crimes law make it all the way through the process but it was hijacked and watered down by those who couldn’t stand to see real marginalized communities receiving protection without describing themselves as marginalized too. After last year’s acknowledgment that climate change might exist, this year we swung back toward denial by striking those two words out of a resolution on wildfires. Maybe denying truth and fact is the Utah way.

And then there are those ballot initiatives — democracy in action. Claiming that the over 500,000 Utahns who voted for Proposition 3 did not know what they were voting for, lawmakers took Medicaid coverage away from tens of thousands of Utahns. Lawmakers managed to spend even more money to force these low-income individuals and families onto health care exchanges where they’d have to pay for their premiums — premiums that lawmakers proposed subjecting to a new excise tax! After saying dozens of times how much they hate the initiative process, lawmakers made it harder to get propositions on the ballot, required signers to have their names posted online, and gave the Legislature more time to change initiatives once they’re approved. Maybe showing contempt toward voters is the Utah way.

Now don’t get me wrong — lawmakers did follow the Utah way in passing many good and much-needed bills, such as compromising to create a budget in the final days of the session and protecting our immigrant neighbors by tweaking the punishments for misdemeanors . But rather than being beguiled by politicians who use this phrase to tout only the good they have done, hopefully voters will remember that the Utah way, and its meaning, is in the mind of the beholder.

This article originally appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Chase Thomas is executive director of Alliance for a Better Utah.

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