Analysis: Utah’s Legislature looks to the future – but has to bring citizens along for the ride

Legislative branches of government, by their very nature, are usually more reactionary than visionary. Most legislation responds to current problems or crises, rather than establishing a foundation for a bright future.
Legislators often don’t look much past the next election, let alone the next decade. That’s why legislatures have traditionally ceded “the vision stuff” to the governor and executive branch. You do the long-term planning, lawmakers seem to say, and we’ll pass the day-to-day legislation.

But the current bunch of Utah legislative leaders don’t fit the reactionary stereotype. House Speaker Brad Wilson, in particular, insists on looking around the corners and far ahead. He wants to lay foundations for future success, as he believes some great leaders of the past have done.

When Wilson was first elected, he felt a lot of legislation was housekeeping, “not moving the needle in a significant way.” In business, he was used to working on projects that didn’t bear fruit for several years. The lack of long-range planning in the legislative branch bothered him. “We didn’t have any systems that forced conversations about long-term decision-making,” he said in an interview.

So he worked with colleagues to implement a couple of structural reforms to force the Legislature to take a longer view.  He pushed the creation of a state budget dashboard that reveals and tracks the state’s fiscal health. Trends can be spotted and action can be taken to keep the state fiscally strong in future years.

He also created a process that annually brings all legislators of both parties and bodies together in a long-term planning retreat. The discussions, facilitated by the Gardner Institute at the University of Utah, focus on the future, and what needs to be done now to ensure future success. The Legislature has invested in the Gardner Institute so it can support the Legislature in long-term planning and keep track of the data needed for decision-making.

In addition, at the first interim committee meetings each year, each committee is charged with looking at long-term plans and legislation that will provide a foundation for the future. “I believe that if we look at what makes sense for the long-term, decisions today are easier,” Wilson said.

“We’ve needed to invest some resources to do long-term planning,” Wilson said. “We’ve needed to strengthen that muscle. If we don’t have a good long-term vision, we won’t have good public policy today.”

Of course, it’s difficult to implement public policy that will benefit the state over the long term, if citizens aren’t willing to go along with it.

For example, in the Legislature’s long-term planning, it became apparent that the state’s tax structure was out-of-balance and hadn’t kept up with changes in the economy and in purchasing patterns. The Legislature tried valiantly to make structural reforms and create a tax system for the future – and even grant a tax cut — but voters rebelled.

Lawmakers then fell back to placing a constitutional amendment on the ballot to provide more flexibility in the use of income taxes, but opposition has arisen to that change.

Another example is analysis and data that show that fuel tax revenue will dwindle as vehicles become more fuel-efficient and as electric vehicles become more popular. The state will inevitably have to transition to a road user charge to raise money to maintain and build roads. With that understanding, legislation was passed establishing a pilot program to change the way transportation infrastructure is funded.

But while the long-range policy makes great sense, a crucial question exists: Will citizens be willing to allow their vehicles to be tracked and then pay a fee based on the number of miles traveled?

Long-range planning is very important and the Legislature is to be commended for looking ahead. But in establishing polices today that will pay off in the future, citizens must be educated so they don’t thwart the lawmakers’ good intentions.