Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Grading the 2014 Legislature

We all remember the little train that could – challenged to get a heavy load over the mountain pass it chugged and chugged and finally made it.

Well, the 2014 Legislature could be called the little train that didn’t.


For all the work, political pain and compromises – and some may say hope at the start of the 45-day general session back on Jan. 27 — not much was accomplished outside of the regular stuff – adoption of a budget and the passage of a number of bills, few, if any, groundbreaking.

Here’s a list I drew up, not necessarily in order of importance, with a grading scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest of success and promise.

You can decide these issues yourself, mine are just one observer’s opinion:

Medicaid expansion = 0.

The House Republicans came up with a screwy plan that would reject all $800 million offered by the federal government to expand Medicaid coverage for poorer Utahns.

Instead they wanted to spend between $30 million and $35 million of Utah’s own taxes to cover some of the 54,000 “donut hole” needy.

GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and Republican senators wanted to take some federal Medicaid money, and seek federal waivers.

In the end, no decision was made. A special session may have to be called later this year.

Public education funding = 0.

Oh, I can hear the screams now. A zero?!

More money was found for teacher pay raises and full funding for the growth of student numbers.

But in reality that was just funding as usual – or funding as state tax growth allows.

Attempts to reform personal income taxes to get more money for education failed – again.

Public education reform = 5.

A boatload of reform bills were filed. But many were killed and or watered-down through amendments.

Transportation funding = 0.

There were proposals to increase the state per-gallon gasoline tax, not increased since 1997. All dead. Or attempts to shift some of the road funding from gas tax to sales tax. All dead.

Look to 2015, after this year’s elections, for some kind of tax hike for roads.

Election/campaign reform, mainly because of the John Swallow scandal = 3.

Many saw the $4 million House investigation of Swallow as a catalyst for real election reform in Utah, maybe even campaign donation limits. Nope.

A few bills passed that will expand some candidate reporting of finances and business associations.

But the real ground-breaking bills failed.

House Speaker Becky Lockhart’s grand attempt to put hundreds of millions of dollars into public education high technology and teacher training = 0.

The speaker’s last legislative session didn’t result in getting any money for her effort – opposed by Herbert and GOP senators.

Alcohol = 0.

LDS Church leaders took the unusual action of opposing any alcohol changes before the session started, even releasing a video by a member of the Twelve Apostles.

A reasonable attempt to allow a large printed notice replacing the much-criticized Zion Curtain, which blocks restaurant patrons from seeing beers poured and drinks mixed, failed.

Human and gay rights = 0.

GOP senators in a closed caucus decided early on that no gay or traditional marriage bills or constitutional amendments would pass this year – citing a federal law case as a reason to wait.

Count My Vote compromise = 10.

In a real success story, lawmakers agreed to a dual-route for political party candidate nominations. The CMV citizen petition initiative stopped as part of the deal. Congrats to Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, for brokering the deal.

This change, if it holds up over the next few years, has the possibility of moderating the politics of the Legislature and top state and federal offices – both from the left and right.

Immigration = 0. Or a -10 step backwards.

In fact, the forward-thinking immigration law of the past was actually put off further into the future because Utah hasn’t been able to get needed federal agreements.

Weapons use or control = 1.

A new gun safety program aimed at suicide was passed, but whether it will really stop gun deaths is unclear.

States rights/federal land reclaimed = 8.

A group of bills and resolutions were passed aimed at helping Utah regain some state sovereignty, but the reality is that more state laws, more pleas to Congress, will do little.

Legislators agree Utah needs to file some federal lawsuits, especially a claim to uphold federal promises made at statehood in 1896, to really make up some ground in this fight.

Finally, with the CMV initiative looming this year; with legislators facing intra-party challenges starting next week with the Republican and Democratic parties’ neighborhood caucus meetings; and with more money coming in tax revenue (but never enough); it was clear Utah legislators were not in a revolutionary reform mood this session.

Lockhart’s public school technology initiative and Medicaid expansion played havoc with some internal politics.

But that was mostly light without heat.

We say goodbye, and thanks for fine service, to Lockhart – Utah’s first female House speaker – and House Minority Leader Jen Seelig, D-Salt Lake. Both are retiring.

So the 75-member House will have new leaders when the 2015 Legislature convenes nine months hence.

And we’ll go through all of this once again – with perhaps more bold votes being taken, partly because of the dual-route party nominating system, in place for the 2016 legislative elections, partly because lawmakers realize many of Utah’s pressing problems can no longer wait.