Many of you might see the above headline and think, "can it possibly be time again for another legislative session?" Though I confess that at times it does seem like the session sneaks up too quickly, a new year has indeed dawned and the 2011 general session will open Monday morning.
To the occasional legislative follower, the sessions and issues might blend together, but to legislators, the flavor and tone of each year's session is unique because of the issues that rise to the forefront and dominate the debate and discussion. The past two sessions were monopolized by difficult budget discussions, which made the sessions seem longer and harder than others in recent memory. As I survey the issues lining up to frame and shape this session, two stand out as particularly hot topics: continued budget woes and immigration.
Thankfully the recession's grip has begun to weaken and we are starting to see signs of economic growth. However, federal stimulus funds and other one-time revenue sources will dry up effective June 30. This leaves the state $313 million short of meeting our current commitments when the new fiscal year starts on July 1. In addition to these shortfalls, we have some areas of the budget with growing needs like public education, higher education, and Medicaid enrollment growth and additional federal program requirements. The state still has approximately $210 million in its rainy day fund, but obviously even if we utilized every penny in the fund, we would still fall short by $103 million dollars and the fund would be completely depleted. The unfortunate budget reality given rainy day reserves and current budget needs, demonstrate that we will likely have to make additional budget cuts of approximately 7 percent or consider revenue-raising options like tax or fee increases. Personally, I am opposed to any tax increases because I fear it might slow or halt our fledgling economic recovery. The Legislature will spend much of our time this session weighing the importance and needs of various programs and departments as we formulate a balanced budget that helps us live within our means.
For better or worse, this year's hottest hot topic appears to be immigration. Through most of the summer and into the fall, various legislators and interest groups have floated ideas, held forums, and suggested many possible paths for in-state immigration reform.
Though many bills are still in draft form, we know there will be upwards of 10 bills addressing the issue from almost every possible angle. This issue is intriguing and challenging because it has all the elements a political scientist might want to study: a classic clash of state and federal powers; the tradition of a nation comprised of immigrants contrasts against the back drop of a post-9/11 need for boarder security; and very real human elements caught up on both sides. This issue is difficult, complex, and emotional. Add to that an additional layer of frustration on all sides because this problem could be more easily addressed at the federal level, but unfortunately the federal government lacks the courage and political leadership to do so. The State Senate has suggested that an omnibus bill be created that encompasses most of the compatible ideas.
Clearly, not all of the ideas that have been suggested are compatible, so much debate and discussion will be necessary in order for the Legislature to pick a path on the issue.
On immigration in particular, there will be a clash of ideas and values. My hope is that the Legislature and the citizens of the state engage in dialogue on this issue, and all issues, with respect and civility. We can disagree without being disagreeable. Wouldn't that be the best tone and flavor for the session to assume?
Rep. Brad Dee is the majority leader in the Utah State House of Representatives. He represents House District 11, which covers portions of Davis and Weber counties.