Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Why Wait for 2017?

bernick mugNow that the 2016 Utah Legislature is over, and Gov. Gary Herbert has signed, vetoed or allowed to become law without his signature more than 470 bills and resolutions, it’s time to look forward.

I mean, time to consider what may be coming in the 2017 Legislature.

Oh really, you exclaim. You can’t even give us time to breathe a bit. You have to talk about nine months from now?

And what about Trump and Clinton? Or Herbert and Johnson? Aren’t there some races that are at least a little bit interesting this year?

Yes, yes. You are correct.

But when you are a political journalist who watches and writes about the Legislature – that large, amorphous body of part-time politicians who sometimes does weird stuff – this is what you do.

So, what can we expect out of the 2017 Legislature, according to Bob’s sources?

First, we need to know the major players – at least three of whom are up for elections of one kind or another this year.

My musings depend on Republican Herbert winning this third race for governor this year, and House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, winning re-election both to his House district and to another two-year term as speaker.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, is not up for general election this year, but will need to win another term as president, as well.

Assuming these three things happen, you can expect:

Herbert will not be running again in 2020. So he can afford to be a bit more radical, more experimental.

Look for Herbert to side with Utah civic and business leaders to call for some kind of revamping of the state and corporate income taxes in 2017.

The bolder move would be an outright tax hike – like moving the current 5 percent rate up to 6 percent or near.

Education First, Prosperity 2020 and the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce are groups already calling for a 7/8ths percentile income tax hike – which over time would bring hundreds of millions of dollars more into Utah public schools.

Elections aside, the Legislature faced tax surpluses of $760 million in 2015 and $550 million in 2016.

There was just no way the fiscal conservatives in the House and Senate could raise the income tax – all of which constitutionally must go to public and higher education – facing those tax excesses.

But with Utah still lagging 51st in the U.S. in per-pupil spending (counting Washington, D.C., schools), something needs to be done financially for education in our state.

And we really can’t wait for the possible – but probably not likely – rescue that could come if somehow Utah wins control of the 31 million acres of federal land here.

While such control would bring billions of dollars to Utah school children, it won’t be coming for decades, if ever.

Look for some kind of significant public school funding increases coming in 2017.

Another major change could come in state liquor control.

It’s unlikely the Legislature would decontrol liquor – allowing wine and hard liquor to be sold in private liquor stores.

But some changes outside of that could be proposed, sources tell UtahPolicy.

While maybe not the most important change, certainly the more visible would be doing away with the so-called “Zion curtain.”

As part of the deal with the LDS Church – whose leaders have always weighed in on liquor control in Utah – back several years ago when, in essence, liquor-by-the-drink was allowed in Utah, a real step forward, church leaders demanded that newly licensed restaurants somehow hide from patrons liquor bottles and the mixing of drinks and pouring of beer.

The argument – a rather silly one even back then – was that nondrinking adults and children shouldn’t be enticed by viewing such liquor exhibits.

Current restaurants that had bar areas where patrons could see such evil alcohol actions didn’t need to build a screen.

But all new restaurants licensed to serve liquor would have to have a screen – the “Zion curtain” – up.

It’s weird and silly. But there it is.

While several forward-thinking legislators — Democrats and Republicans alike – have introduced bills to repeal the curtain in recent Legislatures, it’s been understood they won’t go anywhere without the blessing of LDS Church leaders.

Perhaps some kind of “grand compromise,” as was reached over liquor-by-the-drink, can be found next year – when legislators (many of whom were not happy with the church’s outspokenness on several issues this session) are not up for election in 2017.

After all, children sitting with their nondrinking parents in a licensed restaurant see adults at nearby tables drinking big steins of beer and pretty mixed drinks with umbrellas in them.

You may be hiding the mixing of drinks at the bar, but you are not hiding consumption of liquor at the table. What good does the “Zion curtain” really do, besides keep a promise to LDS Church leaders?

Watch for these predictions in nine months, as you enjoy the Trump circus, and the much more serious Utah governor’s race unfold over the next seven months.