Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Utah political leaders ascend to top positions

Utah state leaders are ascending to top positions in their various national organizations. And some Utah members of Congress enjoy powerful chairmanships. We look at Utah’s political power, and other current issues.

Are we seeing the zenith of Utah influence on the nation?

Pignanelli: "In Utah, there are no bad things in the water there. It's just smooth, really beautiful." — Steve Guttenberg

Notwithstanding the recent controversies of prior attorneys general and (a soon-to-be former) Democratic lawmaker, Utah officials are dedicated, ethical and friendly individuals. Therefore, it is no surprise that colleagues in other states catapult them to prominence. It is always a safe bet to select a Utahn to lead an organization. Our whole culture is focused on preparation, organization, consensus building and providing quality. (Of course, there's the added bonus of no outrageous bar tabs at meetings.)

More importantly, our leaders shine on the national scene because of whom they represent. They are reflecting the strong work ethic, honesty and determination shared by almost all Utahns. Our state and local governments are well-managed not just from decisions made by elected politicians, but also because that's who we are.

Utah is definitely punching above its weight class in Washington, D.C., and among numerous national organizations. This is a testimony to the quality of our leaders, but also a shining example of "Utah Exceptionalism." So take a moment and pat yourself on the back.

Webb: With Gov. Gary Herbert chairing the National Governors Association, and Curt Bramble presiding over the National Conference of State Legislators, and Wayne Niederhauser taking top positions in the Assembly of States and the American Legislative Exchange Council, and Ralph Becker leading the National League of Cities, and Sens. Orrin HatchRob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz chairing powerful congressional committees, I suggest these good Utahns collaboratively produce and promote a far-reaching agenda to leverage their leadership positions and accomplish something truly meaningful.

I humbly propose, while they enjoy the national spotlight and are leading their peers from across the country, that they jointly develop a practical, common-sense, progressive federalism agenda to responsibly devolve power from the federal government to states. If Republicans win the presidency next year and maintain control of Congress, the agenda could become the blueprint for a rejuvenation of balanced federalism and a promising new era in American governance.

But the agenda would have to be developed and communicated smartly and responsibly, with a focus on good governance, not on ideology. The worst thing that has happened to federalism is that it has been co-opted by the far right and has been associated with racism and slashing programs for the less fortunate. It doesn’t have to be that way. A great case can be made for balanced federalism as the responsible and workable solution to a lot of the nation’s problems.

It would be an ambitious agenda. Perhaps they could ask former Gov. Mike Leavitt, who did some great work in federalism, to chair a joint working group.

They’re in the right positions. Why not go for something big — something historic?

Utah is a hot spot for medical device manufacturing. Next week the medical device tax will be debated in Congress. Should it be repealed? 

Pignanelli: The wonderful aspect about the medical device tax is that it provides such a clear unambiguous textbook example of how really dumb counterproductive provisions are placed into law by intelligent people with fancy degrees. Congressional staff was desperately looking for different revenue sources to fund health care reform and determined medical device manufacturers profit under the new law (more patients with more insurance means more devices) and so these companies should help fund programs. Using this logic, cancer survivors should pay an additional tax because they benefit from federal grants sponsoring medical research. The fee is so outrageous that liberals and conservatives are uniting behind a repeal. So Congress has no excuse.

Webb: Only an ultra-liberal Democratic president and an ultra-liberal Democratic Congress hell-bent on funding a big, new unpopular federal program could have dreamed up a tax as bad as the medical device tax.

And, yes, that’s exactly what happened. To help pay for Obamacare, President Barack Obama and his Democratic Congress in 2010 imposed a gross revenue tax on the medical device manufacturing industry. It is a terrible tax because it singles out one industry and taxes gross revenue instead of profits.

One of Utah’s most successful businessmen, Fred Lampropoulos, the chairman and CEO of Merit Medical Systems, which employs nearly 1,500 people in Utah, notes the tax has increased Merit’s federal taxes by 41 percent. It is driving businesses and jobs overseas. It should be repealed.

This year’s Legislature gave counties the authority to place a proposal for a quarter cent sales tax increase on the ballot to pay for transportation projects and road maintenance. Should counties place the proposal on the ballot this year, or wait until the general election in 2016?

Pignanelli: The local option tax is the culmination of thousands of hours of negotiations between many parties in the last legislative session. A result of these discussions is that the Utah Transit Authority receives a portion of new monies generated. While the goals of enhancing public transportation are important, this organization remains controversial. Salt Lake County municipalities support placing the issue on the 2015 ballot. But many elected officials are nervous about pushback from voters because of angst with UTA. So expect creative political messaging from the county this fall.

Webb: Municipal elections aren’t usually the best time to vote on county-wide ballot proposals. But because essentially all of Salt Lake County will be voting anyway, and because many cities and counties will use vote-by-mail systems, voting participation should be high. So it makes sense to go forward this year. The money is badly needed by local governments for local roads, biking and walking trails, and to improve public transit.