Sorry Senator Lee, but all is not well in Zion

Aug 26 2013 - 2:42pm

In a recent op-ed, Sen. Mike Lee held out the "Utah Model" as a template for fixing what ails the nation. ("The Utah Model," Aug. 20) There wasn't a lot of detail as to what he meant by that, so I thought I might expand a bit on that topic.

One interpretation of the "Utah Model" might refer to the wonderful people who live in this state, together with some great institutions. 

If that's what he's talking about, I couldn't agree more. Our pioneer heritage and deep family and religious traditions have created a population of hard-working, honest and caring people. Despite the strain it puts on our school budgets, the fact that we're the youngest state in the nation has to be considered a positive. Our desire to be near family means we put up with lower wages to live here, and combined with other factors as noted above, our workforce is very competitive.

Thanks to wise investments of past generations, our public universities have become major economic incubators.

These advantages go even deeper. One advantage we have in attracting business to the state are our low health care costs. This is partly due to our young population and our healthy lifestyle, but it also comes in no small part from innovators like Intermountain Healthcare, whose managed care system has become a national model for health care reform.

Although I agree with Sen. Lee that these are important factors, I'm struggling with how we export these advantages to the rest of the nation. Our LDS missionaries are a hard-working bunch, but I don't think that to "make all Americans into Mormons" is a workable solution to the nation's problems.

If, however, Sen. Lee thinks that the "Utah Model" worth exporting is our approach to governing the last decade, I'm afraid I must disagree.

Given the quality of our children and the strength of our families, Utah ought to be flat-out leading the nation in outcomes from our public education system. A few decades ago, when we had more political balance in the Legislature, we did. But not anymore. 

Compared with states with similar demographics, our outcomes are average at best and losing ground; thanks, of course, to the starvation diet we've forced on our public schools. We may have paid a bit more in taxes back then, but it was money well spent. Our higher education system has also suffered, resulting in tuition increases that have significantly outstripped inflation and left our youth with ever increasing mountains of debt.

Whether it's education, our poisonous air, the fact that more than one in ten Utahns lack basic health insurance, or the struggle of our middle class families to make ends meet on stagnating wages, Utah has its share of problems. Problems that have increased in severity during the last decade since Sen. Lee and his fellow Republicans made their hard-right turn to political extremism.

Sen. Lee loves to criticize Washington, but Utah's pay-to-play system of government exposed by recent scandals in the attorney general's office would make even Washington K-street power brokers blush. And if you think the AG indignities are an anomaly, I have a Rainbow Bridge in southern Utah I'd like to sell you. 

Although "business as usual" isn't always as blatant as the Shurtliff/Swallow revelations, there's no question the rich and powerful enjoy a special seat at the table in our state that us average citizens can only dream about.

I'm sorry, Senator Lee, but all is not well in Zion. Even the tepid economic growth we have experienced recently has seen most of the fruits go toward more gold, silver, silks and fine-twined linens for the privileged few, while average Utah families see declines in their incomes and worsening economic security. 

And the solutions we hear from Utah Republicans? Let's make educating our children optional, refuse the tens of millions of dollars for Medicaid expansion Utah taxpayers have already paid for, engage in expensive Quixotic lawsuits against the federal government over public lands, gut regulations on Utah's major polluters, and oppose electoral reforms like independent redistricting and open primaries that would give more Utahns a voice in how our state is run.

If that is the "Utah Model" Senator Lee is talking about, why we would want to export that? 

Instead, Utah needs to return to the model we had back during the Reagan era, when Republicans and Democrats in Utah worked together with a vision based on common sense solutions to problems instead of rigid adherence to extremist political ideology.

Olsen, of Ogden, is vice-chair of the LDS Democratic Caucus.

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