Utah Legislature shows how to govern locally

Tuesday , March 14, 2017 - 5:30 AM

CAROL MCNAMARA, special to the Standard-Examiner

The 2017 Utah legislative session came to an end Thursday, March 9. This year was relatively tame, without the last-minute introduction of controversial bills — in fact, without a great deal of controversy at all.

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Certainly, there were a few disagreements: All efforts to fix the “plurality problem,” the fact that a primary election with multiple candidates (some of whom could get their names on the ballot through signature gathering) could produce a winner who has not earned a majority of the votes, failed. And the Legislature fell three votes shy of agreeing to join an Article V convention of the states, which would reduce federal power by imposing federal spending limits and setting congressional term limits. And we shouldn’t overlook the dispute between the Outdoor Retailer Association and Utah Republicans on the subject of public lands, which led to retailers announcing the departure of the twice-yearly Outdoor Retailers Association Convention in Salt Lake City, which generated approximately $45 million a year in tourism dollars.

On other matters, however, legislators chose to avoid controversy by studying the truly unsettled issues and delaying decisions until the 2018 session — the legalization of medical cannabis and tax reform, to name two. Instead, the Legislature put its head down and worked on the policies on which many, if not all, could agree: more money for education (if not quite enough), homelessness in Salt Lake and Utah Counties, clean air, and, my particular favorite, funding for a renovated Social and Behavioral Science Building at Weber State University.

Why was the legislative session relatively routine, even quiet this year? Was it because the Legislature is in a holding pattern on certain issues — health insurance and Medicaid, for example — while the Trump administration finds its footing, if it ever does? Perhaps. Or, is it the case,that even when there are few partisan fireworks in the Legislature from one year to the next, legislators in Utah, both Democrats and Republicans, are serious about addressing the problems and issues about which they know the people of Utah care?

A recent book, “The Fractured Republic,” by Yuval Levin, documents the fragmentation of American society since the end of World War II. Prior to the war, there was a great deal of homogeneity and consolidation of economic and political power in American political and social life. After the war, this homogeneity, for good and bad, began to fragment. The Civil Rights Movement and the greater participation of women in every sector of American life outside the home transformed the public sphere and the economy. It also introduced greater individualism on the left and the right into our political and social life. Since then, Levin argues, we have been looking for ways to recreate a shared sense of purpose in American political life.

Levin’s argument is that it is time for everyone across the political spectrum to give up our nostalgic desire for a re-institution of the mid-20th century consensus, a time to which we all look back as prosperous and peaceful. The fact is that time was unusual. Our economic competitors were recovering from a catastrophic war fought on their soil. And the demand for equal rights and freedoms among Americans deprived of those rights and opportunities prior to the war was bound to arise. There is no way to go back; nor should we want to.

So, what should we do? On what can we agree? Levin recommends that the best way to find necessary solutions to practical problems is to deal with issues at the level of government closest to the people.

Watching the Legislature during the 2017 session should remind us that state and local governments do not have the leisure to debate and delay decisions indefinitely. State legislatures have to get things done — they have to balance a budget, and they have to deal with issues that confront their constituents every day.

We all talk about making our communities stronger and healthier. Perhaps conservatives and liberals can agree — even when they continue to disagree about policy — that communities are best at addressing the issues that affect them most intimately. Even when our national political life seems unsettled and unsettling, we can tend to our state, our cities and our own communities.

Dr. Carol McNamara is the director of the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University and a member of the political science faculty. Twitter: @carolmcnamara10.

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