OpEd: Legislators brought forth the good, the bad and the ugly

Utah survived another 45-day legislative session with more than 1,200 bills considered by legislators. Here are the Alliance for a Better Utah’s views on the good, the bad, and the ugly.

To be sure, there was good news. The Clean Air Caucus remains vigilant in the effort to clean Utah’s air. Good thing, after another week of horrendous inversion during the session. Rep. Patrice Arent’s House Bill 237 allows Utahns to contribute income taxes to the Clean Air Fund. A measure to upgrade water heater standards also passed. However, there is always more to be done. A measure to improve building codes was killed, incentives for refineries to accelerate production of Tier III fuel failed, and funding for air quality monitors was cut. As air quality will undoubtedly remain an issue, we can hope that these efforts will return next year.

Education received a lot of attention, but marginal action. Education First floated putting a 7/8 percent income tax increase on the ballot. Sen. Jim Dabakis proposed reversing a 1996 constitutional amendment to allow higher education to be funded from the same pool as K-12 and also proposed a progressive income tax structure to raise significantly more money for education. And ABU announced its intention to sue the State over the adequacy of public education funding.

Other good measures included bills to combat the increase in the state’s opiate deaths, and new funding to aid the homeless, including construction of new homeless shelters and direct services.

Of course, there was also the bad. The Legislature handed up a double whammy to Utahns — first by passing House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan’s minimalist, but expensive, Medicaid revision while simultaneously diverting taxpayer funds to a coal port in California ($53 million), a down payment for the “doomed to fail” public lands lawsuit ($4.5 million) and even an appropriation to the Rural Utah Alliance for legal assistance for county officials like Phil Lyman ($250,000). After all of that, more than 80,000 hard-working, low-income Utahns will continue to live without the access to affordable health care for at least another year.

Rather than combating STDs and teen pregnancy, our Legislature stuck with abstinence-only sex education, supported a resolution to repeal the 17th amendment — apparently not trusting Utah citizens to elect our U.S. senators — and passed another resolution calling for a Constitutional Convention.

And the session wouldn’t be complete without the truly ugly. Headlining this category — the defeat of Sen. Urquhart’s efforts to continue to push civil rights reforms through an update to Utah’s hate crimes law. This bill’s defeat was nothing more than a statement by the Legislature that our LGBT brothers and sisters deserve less protection than the rest of us. The attack on recent LGBT civil rights gains continued with Rep. LaVar Christensen’s introduction of a measure to nullify the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision, and the Legislature’s refusal to change existing language for adoption to reflect marriage equality.

Also ugly was the GOP-controlled Legislature’s use of its power to change the partisan makeup of two non-partisan legislative committees. Now the staff of these committees risk the fear that their jobs are in the hands of the controlling party.

As opinions about the good, the bad and the ugly fly in the aftermath of yet another legislative session, we recognize the need to improve on the “good,” work harder on the “bad,” and check our moral compass when we look at the “ugly.” Let’s all continue to work toward a better Utah.

Josh Kanter is founder and board president of the Alliance for a Better Utah. He lives in Granite with his wife and children.

See the OpEd in the Salt Lake Tribune here.

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