The 45-day of the 2011 legislative session is nearly upon us, with important public policy questions looming. Here's our take on some key legislative issues:
Will Utah join Arizona in passing harsh immigration measures, or will a more compassionate approach win the day?
Pignanelli: "How can you look at the ... Legislature and still believe in intelligent design?" — Kinky Friedman. Immigration legislation in some form will pass. However, most politicos expect any measure to be less onerous than Arizona's. Many lawmakers are expressing behind-the-scenes hope for a more rational approach. But the true test of leadership is how the children of undocumented workers will be treated. It is both moral and practical to allow these young Americans to attend our schools and universities, without imposing additional burdens. Educated second-generation immigrants guarantee a bright future for the country.
Webb: Public opinion, and some momentum, is on the side of combining stronger law enforcement targeting serious criminals, along with a guest worker program for undocumented immigrants who can pay taxes and contribute to society. It's entirely impractical to round up and deport every illegal alien. So let's aggressively go after the criminals, but bring the good people out of the shadows, register them, keep track of them, impose fair penalties and allow them to be productive. Utah has a chance to set an example for the nation. We can create a model that really works. I think the Legislature is up to the task.
Gov. Gary Herbert has recommended quarterly income tax payments. Some support also exists for reinstating the sales tax on food, while lowering the overall sales tax rate. What's the outlook on taxes?
Webb: Don't expect any sort of tax increase out of this Legislature. However, revenue-neutral rebalancing of taxes makes sense. Good tax policy demands a broad tax base with low rates. Legislators should restore the sales tax on food, and reduce the overall tax rate to avoid a tax/revenue increase. Low-income people can receive benefits in other ways to make up for the food tax increase. It was a mistake to reduce the sales tax on food.
Pignanelli: This political environment is not conducive to tax increases. The one time bump from quarterly taxes is not a net increase and could survive. If Medicaid benefits are not squeezed in this session, then a sales tax on food could be considered.
Redistricting won't take place until a special session is held later in the year, but what's the maneuvering behind the scenes?
Pignanelli: Next to breathing, the most frequent activity of most lawmakers is obsessing over the boundaries of their district. Republican incumbents are very interested in protecting their base of support, while figuring out where they can unload the neighborhood of Democrats into an adjoining district. Geographic areas likely to face a loss of seats (mostly Democrats) will compel behind-the-scenes deal making as to who gets to stay, and who will go. It is all great fun to watch.
Webb: It's a feeding frenzy, or soon will be. Various lawmakers are already considering plans for both congressional and legislative districts. There will be more ideas and public input in this redistricting process than any in history because new technology will allow anyone to draw maps. Overall, inner-city, low-growth areas (often represented by Democrats) will lose representation to fast-growing suburbs, especially the west side of Salt Lake County and northwest Utah County.
The fundamental congressional redistricting question is whether each of the four districts should have fairly equal proportions of urban/rural areas and Republican/Democratic voters, or whether the most urbanized area of Salt Lake County (and possibly Summit) should be carved into a district. This would provide a safe Democratic district. Strong philosophical arguments can be made on both sides. I believe Congressman Jim Matheson is a better representative of Utah because his district includes the diversity of Utah, both urban and rural interests, rather than just the big city.
Who stands to win big or lose big in this session?
Webb: All eyes will be on rookie House Speaker Becky Lockhart and congressional hopefuls like Rep. David Clark, Rep. Carl Wimmer and Sen. Dan Liljenquist. Gov. Gary Herbert's performance may encourage or discourage challenges in 2012. And remember, those all-important election year party caucuses will only be a short 12 months away when this Legislature adjourns in March.
Pignanelli: Although Election Day 2012 is almost two years away, any candidate serious for higher office must have announced and organized by no later than summer of this year. Therefore, what happens in this session could very well dictate the political fortunes of a number of players. This includes Lockhart, former Clark, Wimmer, Rep. Stephen Sandstrom (who may seek a congressional seat), Liljenquist (who is looking at governor or U.S. Senate) and a number of House members seeking to move up to the state Senate. Also, this is a key session for the governor, who may have to fight off Republican challengers next year.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. E-mail: email@example.com.