Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Moving the ‘Big rocks’

Bob BernickThis was the 37th year I’ve reported on the Utah Legislature.

And I like to ask myself at the end of each 45 days:

“What did lawmakers do that at least set in motion large changes for Utah citizens?”

In hindsight, that question is often much easier to answer. And it may take weeks or months looking back to get a better perspective.

Still, this past session I see two “big rocks” that have begun to move.

1) Utah’s homeless problem is going to get better. Perhaps much, much better.

And it’s because of legislative action and leadership by House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper; House Majority Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton; and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy.

Yes, the state involvement started in the 2016 Legislature, but it was this session that $35 million-plus was committed to building new shelters and enhanced rehabilitation programs pushed.

By mid-2019 the Road Home shelter should be closed, bringing real change to the Rio Grande/Gateway/Pioneer Park areas of Salt Lake City’s westside.

2) A general agreement, even among archconservatives in the House and Senate, that more money must be found for public schools.

Gone, at least for now, is the tendency for state legislators to look toward the elected State Board of Education and the 41 local schools districts to solve the problem of underfunding, overcrowding, and poor morale of teachers.

A big part of that is the Our Schools Now citizen initiative petition – for with polls showing support for raising the state personal income tax for schools, legislators and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert really can’t ignore what’s happening.

Yes, Herbert and lawmakers have been putting most of each year’s tax revenue growth and surplus revenues into public education.

But the effort, while yielding more than $1 billion the last few years, in reality is barely keeping pace with the growth in the number of new students, K-12.

OSN is forcing a broad review of the state’s tax system – and officials are looking squarely at an economy where only 40 percent of the gross product is taxable – where just a few decades ago 80 percent of the product was taxable.

Something must be done, and that effort started in the 2017 Legislature.

But after each session I also look at opportunities missed. And like other sessions, there are a few here:

The largest was probably unnoticed by most Utahns, even close watchers of the Legislature.

By three votes in the Senate, lawmakers failed to join a national movement to call an Article 5 constitutional convention of the states.

Rep. Merrill Nelson’s HJR3 was broad enough that Utah would have joined a handful of states calling for this first-ever state attempt to rebalance the federal government with state sovereignty.

Of all the things the Legislature could have done this year to pull this nation out of debt and give states even only a small voice in federalism, this was it. A real chance for Utah to lead out on this critical issue was missed, sadly so.

Also missed was a chance to add gay rights to an enhanced hate crimes bill.

As long as some citizens are legally discriminated against, none of our individual rights are safe, or secure.

Still, the 2017 Legislature did see real bipartisan actions on major issues, and certainly a civility among members and the general public.

What may well have been the largest public demonstration ever on Capitol Hill – with 10,000 people cramming the Rotunda – the yelling was about President Donald Trump and equal rights and respect for women – nothing really to do with Herbert or lawmakers actions, or inaction.

So I say congratulations to legislators and their majority GOP leadership. This was a productive, civil general session. Much accomplished.

But, as always, much remaining to do.