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2013 Legislative Preview

Big Challenges Await Utah’s Lawmakers

LaVarr Webb

January 1, 2013

Utah business leaders who care about quality workforce, healthcare reform and energy development should carefully monitor the upcoming legislative session—and engage in issues of concern to them.

Utah’s 104 state lawmakers swing into action on Jan. 28 for their short-but-hectic 45-day session. Utah is a conservative state and its lawmakers are generally pro-business—strong advocates of capitalism and the free enterprise system. But that doesn’t mean business people should assume the right things will always be done at the Capitol.

Legislators are susceptible to political pressure. Interest groups on all sides of the political spectrum attempt to influence lawmakers through campaign contributions, personal visits, professional lobbying, communications campaigns and constituent pressure. Business people concerned about legislative issues must get in the game and fight for their objectives.

The good news is, it’s not difficult to engage. Utah’s legislators are part-time and easily approachable. They will listen to you, especially if you are a constituent. You can quickly find your representative and senator, with contact information, at the bottom of the Legislature’s home page, www.le.utah.gov.  

One of the best ways to influence the Legislature is to get involved with a business association or trade group. Most industries have organizations that lobby the Legislature. Also, most chambers of commerce have legislative agendas and seek to influence lawmakers. These organizations always welcome business people who will roll up their sleeves and work.

Monitoring what’s happening at the Legislature has never been easier. Anyone with an internet connection can watch and listen to floor debates and committee action in real time. Every action on every bill can be easily tracked via e-mail notification. It’s important to spend some time on the legislative website, www.le.utah.gov, and learn to navigate the various features. Utah has one of the best, and most transparent, legislative sites in the country. 

Here’s a quick overview of the big issues facing lawmakers this session.
State Budget. Revenue projections indicate lawmakers will have about $420 million more to work with in the upcoming fiscal year, including both one-time and on-going funds. That sounds like a lot of money, but natural growth in education (increased number of students) and agency caseloads, plus 1 percent compensation increase for state employees, will soak up most of it. Little money will be available for new programs. A one-page overview of Gov. Gary Herbert’s proposed budget can be found here: http://utah.gov/governor/docs/budget/FY2014BUDGETANNOUNCEMENT.pdf. In addition, with an enormous federal funding crisis looming, Utah will have to learn to get by with less federal money.

Education Funding and Reform. The top priority for the governor and state legislators this session is education. Utah test scores are, at best, average, and are much worse for minority students. Many business leaders worry that Utah’s education system is not aligned well enough with workforce needs. Education is a significant economic development issue because businesses are less likely to relocate to Utah if our education system is mediocre. Watch to see if lawmakers force reform and innovation in Utah’s schools, rather than just spend more money on the same system. Business people can get involved with business-led organizations like Prosperity 2020, www.prosperity2020.com, or Education First, www.educationfirstutah.org, to help influence the education debate.

Healthcare Reform. How Utah responds to the requirements of Obamacare will dominate the healthcare debate. One big issue is establishing a state health insurance exchange or allowing the federal government to impose its own exchange. Another hot issue is whether to expand Medicaid so many thousands more low-income people are covered. The federal government will pick up the entire cost of expansion for three years, and 90 percent after 10 years. But lawmakers are worried that the federal government, which is essentially broke, won’t live up to its commitments. Medicaid is already an enormous drain on state tax revenues.

Taxes. Some legislators believe it is time to restore the sales tax on food, while providing a food tax credit or other reimbursement for low-income people. The best tax policy is to create a broad tax base with low rates, rather than narrow the base through various exemptions. Many leaders say it doesn’t make sense for middle-income and wealthy people to enjoy the food tax break at the expense of inadequate funding for state and local needs.

Transportation. Some leaders are promoting a gas tax increase, and/or indexing the gas tax, which would mostly fund maintenance of local and state roads. The gas tax has lost 34 percent of its purchasing power over the last 16 years (since it was last increased) and maintenance funds for roads, highways and bridges are falling desperately short.

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