Wednesday, July 30, 2014

In our opinion: Utah's 2014 legislative session

Deseret News editorial

Published: Sun, Jan. 26 12:00 a.m. MST

 Many issues will vie for attention in the coming weeks. The Deseret News has chosen five we feel are of particular importance and concern.

Many issues will vie for attention in the coming weeks. The Deseret News has chosen five we feel are of particular importance and concern.

(Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Few things typify government by the people better than a citizen legislature. Utah is one of only six states led by lawmakers who serve part-time with limited salaries, meaning most of them retain full-time employment elsewhere.

How valuable is this? Read what researchers William Ruger of Texas State University and Jason Sorens of the University at Buffalo, SUNY, had to say in a paper published recently by the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix:

“An analysis of indicators of economic and personal freedom in the 50 states reveals that states with “citizen legislatures”—part-time legislators, low salaries, short sessions, and small legislative staffs—enjoy more economic and individual liberty.”

Certainly, that is the case in Utah. Despite the occasional bill that attracts ridicule or seems ill-conceived, Utahns are well-served by the men and women who relinquish 45 days of their lives each year, not counting monthly interim meetings and other obligations, to serve their fellow citizens.

The 2014 legislative session begins Monday. Many issues will vie for attention in the coming weeks. The Deseret News has chosen five we feel are of particular importance and concern.

Air Quality

Few issues weigh as heavily on the minds (and lungs) of Northern Utah residents this time of year than the quality of the stagnant air during temperature inversions. More than a dozen bills addressing the subject already have been proposed.

Some punitive measures may be appropriate, but generally these have proven ineffective. For instance, a strict ban on wood-burning stoves during inversions makes sense, but the state lacks the resources to adequately enforce it. Emission controls on businesses and industries, including rules on how fast food restaurants emit smoke from their kitchens, can be more effective but can harm profitability.

We support efforts that use market incentives to reduce emissions. Offsets or credits offer one solution to industrial pollution. Companies could be given limits on emissions, along with the flexibility to meet those requirements however they see fit.

As automobiles are the leading cause of harmful pollution along the Wasatch Front, the state should impose variable tolls on major highways, with the cost of those tolls increasing as air quality deteriorates or as traffic levels increase. This would give people real incentives to plan trips wisely or to seek alternatives. In addition, companies could be given incentives for implementing technology that allows employees to work from home.

Liquor laws

This would not be the first session in which Utah lawmakers wrestle with proposed changes to laws governing the sale and serving of alcoholic beverages. The subject tends to come up under the guise of helping economic development or improving the state’s image. This year, bills may emerge challenging the partitions establishments must erect between customers and preparers, nicknamed the “Zion curtain” by detractors.

As we have frequently noted, Utah’s laws do an excellent job of keeping alcohol abuse in check, relative to other states. The state’s reasonable restrictions allow social drinkers to obtain a beverage while discouraging over-consumption and drunken driving. Any proposed changes would be solutions in search of a problem.

Education

Utah students continue to perform at about the middle of the pack nationally in standardized tests. Some see this as a victory, given the state’s low level of per pupil funding. But funding has been shown to have little relation to education outcomes worldwide, and Utah could do better.

We hope to see legislative efforts to expand school choice, not just through charters, but by giving low-income students access to an array of private and public choices. We hope to see real innovation in how the state renovates a system devised for the industrial age, with vestiges of the agricultural age hanging on. We hope to see measures that encourage public and private schools to collaborate and share ideas about what works and what doesn’t.

Intergenerational Poverty

Few things are more troubling to a state’s long-term outlook than having a segment of its population caught in a downward cycle of poverty that gets passed from generation to generation. The state already has begun tracking data on this type of poverty. Last year it set up a commission to identify solutions. This year we anxiously await the results of this process and plant to watch its implementation carefully.

We also encourage policies that promote marriage, given research that clearly ties stable marriage to economic stability.

Economic Development

Certainly, Utah does a good job attracting business. Its laws are friendly toward startups and relocations, and the state often ranks high in surveys on places in which to do business.

That said, this is an issue we would like to be at the forefront of discussions on all other issues we raise. Clean air, quality education, sound liquor laws and policies that reduce intergenerational poverty all contribute to a state that attracts high-paying jobs and higher living standards.

Given how Utah’s lawmakers live and work around the people they represent, we have no doubt they will be able to keep their eyes on the needs of Utahns above all else, making for a successful session.

Recommended
1. Kings Court
Alpine, UT,
Jan. 26, 2014

"Utah is one of only six states led by lawmakers who serve part-time with limited salaries, meaning most of them retain full-time employment elsewhere."

And where is that elsewhere employment. Most are realtors, land developers, or other related professions. The attraction to serving as a part-time legislator is to pass laws that funnel money to their own interests. That is why the prison move is so exciting for many of them.

2. jzorider
salt lake city, UT,
Jan. 26, 2014

Utah has low rates of DUIs and other alcohol-related issues because we have the lowest number of alcohol drinkers- this has to do with the makeup of our population and has nothing to do with liquor laws. Utah liquor laws need to be changed not because they're "quirky," or restrictive, or anything like that, but because they put an unnecessary burden on people in order to accomplish nothing. If a "Zion Curtain" accomplishes anything at all, I'd like to see the study that shows it. If a drop in DUIs can be traced back to taking hard lemonades out of grocery stores, I'd like to see the evidence.

3. FT
salt lake city, UT,
Jan. 26, 2014

The DN list is very good but their rationale and suggestions often seem misguided. Air pollution and education are issues that have been in the public debate for years and very little has been done to address their core problems. We continue to have legislators that nibble around the edges of these issues but lack the drive or political courage to pass laws to improve the public lot. As citizens we need to put people into office that are committed to solving the core problems on these issues.

4. Howard Beal
Provo, UT,
Jan. 26, 2014

Since funding has no correlation to test scores, let's just dump a 100 first graders in a large auditorium with one teacher and see if that works.

We also might note that when comparing to other states with similar demographics for race, ethnicity and children in poverty, Utah does rather poorly.

5. McMurphy
St George, Utah,
Jan. 26, 2014

I like the idea of a legislature in session only 45 days a year. As Mark Twain explained:
"No man's life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session".