The 2023 Utah legislative session is concluding its first week. New lawmakers have gotten their first taste of the legislative process. Veteran lawmakers have begun again to try and persuade their colleagues to reform Utah law and public policy. Scrutiny and criticism of Utah’s legislative priorities and actions have begun popping up on news media websites and publications.
The beginning of each year’s legislative session offers a chance to remember key principles and institutions that should be part of the measuring stick for good public policy reforms. As the legislative session clock ticks down and political pressure ramps up, we have the opportunity to recommit to principles over politics and building institutions over forwarding agendas.
Families: Parents are the institutional leaders of families, which are as important to society as schools, businesses and government itself. In Utah, family decisions – where to live for access to good schools, what to buy to provide for family needs, how to expand a business or pursue a better job to improve a family’s quality of life, etc. – drive our economic success or failure. When public policy fails to recognize the impact of families on society, it risks unnecessarily dragging down both families and the economy.
Education: In a democratic republic like ours, a primary purpose of the education system is its civic mission: educating citizens in the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in a republic. If our education policy fails to produce adequate civic knowledge and understanding of the institutions and mechanisms of American democracy, then it will have failed no matter the number of engineers, teachers or doctors it produces.
Civil rights: A primary purpose of government, according to the Declaration of Independence, is to secure our basic right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Good public policy recognizes this fact and the connection between different civil rights: Weakening one lays the foundation for weakening others.
Anti-polarization: Deep division among people and between political factions is a defining feature of our national politics and a threat to healthy state and local politics. Political or policy agendas whose advancement requires or exacerbates social and political divisions may be doing more harm than good to our civic fabric.
Free enterprise: Democracy thrives when prosperity is widespread and opportunity is abundant. This is most likely when public policy supports upward economic mobility, lowers barriers to starting a new business, and allows the private sector to determine the best ways to invest capital.
As the 2023 legislative session gathers steam, evaluating public policies through the lens of principles and institutions will become increasingly difficult. The temptation to set aside principle in the face of political pressure or ignore institution building in favor of advancing a preferred agenda by whatever means necessary only grow stronger as the 45 days of Utah’s legislative session move forward.
This annual political trend in lawmaking makes it all the more important that we reflect early and often upon and recommit to our principles. This is true for legislators who are making the laws as well as voters who are engaging with and selecting who gets the privilege of making the laws. If we can apply these principles and build our civic institutions through public policy, then despite criticism, Utah’s laws will continue to help Utah remain the flourishing state that we love and call home.
Derek Monson is vice president of policy at Sutherland Institute, a principle-based public policy think tank in Salt Lake City.