Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Legislature offers contradictions in standard issues and new trends

Some people ask us if we ever run out of column topics. The answer is no. New and recycled issues, events and controversies pop up like whack-a-mole. If anything, there’s too much to write about. Here are a few current topics that caught our fancy.

Is hosting a Republican presidential debate on March 21 a big deal for Utah? 

(Pignanelli) “The media has wrested complete control of the presidential primary debates from the parties and candidates … and they've become a circus.” — Mark McKinnon

These are strange times. “Interesting” and “fun” are rarely used adjectives to describe GOP events. But many Americans (especially this one) are having a great time watching Republicans wrestle each other in the debates. Thus, these internal cage matches are generating record ratings.

The national attention and tourist dollars Utah receives from hosting the debate will be (to utilize the favorite adjectives of Donald Trump) tremendous, fantastic and beautiful. But the relevance of the verbal contest will be in direct correlation to the results of the Super Tuesday and other March primaries.

Over half of the delegates will be pledged to candidates when the event airs. So all true politicos are praying for the following scenario in March: Trump wins a handful of primaries while the remaining contenders win upsets in their home states (i.e. Ted Cruz claims Texas, Marco Rubio takes Florida, John Kasich wins Ohio) and a smattering of other contests. Then the possibility of a brokered convention is more than just a fantasy. With such an environment on March 21, our beloved state will be recipient of global attention not felt since the Olympics. This dynamic could foster street protests, international media coverage of local delicacies like fry sauce, a wave of spring skiers and traffic jams.

Let's all hope the Ides of March bestow the laurels of triumph on at least three political presidential gladiators and that joyous confusion dominates. Then the real victors will be 3 million Utahns.

(Webb) It’s a cool thing for the state, but we ought not to get euphoric. Some 27 states and territories (including some big ones) will vote between now and March 21. Many pundits are saying the race will be all but over by mid-March. If Utah is going to be Marco Rubio’s “firewall” against the Trump onslaught, then he’s in big trouble.

Still, just having Donald Trump’s big mouth in Utah will be HUUGE. We have plenty of establishment targets for him to ridicule. We prefer polite language and we believe immigrants deserve respect. We like to hear real solutions to problems, not just boastful bluster.

The real impact of the debate and the presidential caucus voting the next day will be to capture all the attention and all but eliminate media focus on local races. Usually, we’d be talking about which Utah candidates are getting their supporters to the caucuses and what’s happening in local races. Instead, it will be wall-to-wall Trump. That may actually be good for Gov. Gary Herbert and not so good for challenger Jonathan Johnson, who will have a hard time winning any news cycles with The Donald sucking up all the political oxygen.

Usually, governors provide long-term vision for the state while the Legislature tends to be reactive. Key lawmakers are hoping to push more expansive long-range planning. Can this be done?

Pignanelli: Legislators are leading the way on judicial reform, moving the prison, accountability in higher education, economic development initiatives, technology promotion in public education, etc. The governor has highlighted several key objectives for educational degrees and job creation. The executive and legislative branches may be bumping into each other in pursuing a vision, but that's a good problem.

Webb: I have been impressed that the Legislature, particularly Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, wants to plan for a doubling of the state’s population over the next few decades. Certainly, lawmaking bodies are by nature reactive, dealing with the issues of the day and worrying about the next election. It’s hard for lawmakers to make needed investments that may not pay dividends while they’re in office. At the national level, Congress seems totally incapable of doing the hard things, like dealing with entitlements and ballooning deficits.

But Utah’s Legislature has taken tough action that will pay off long into the future. It voted to move the state prison. It voted to raise gas taxes and give local governments authority to boost local transportation taxes. It is trying to figure out how to provide water for twice as many people and how to boost Utah into a top 10 state in education. We need to support legislators who are willing to make investments that will benefit our children and grandchildren.

Is the petition signature process for automatic primary ballot placement having any impact on deliberations?

Pignanelli: Obtaining the necessary signatures for the primary elections are the new bragging rights for lawmakers. Some admit avoiding extremist delegates has loosened their decision-making process. So the net results of expanding outreach to voters and moderating legislative debates is a real positive.

Webb: Some 130 candidates have declared their intent to gather signatures. That’s a terrific start to this new process in its first year, especially considering the Republican Party has created a great deal of confusion in its unfortunate battle to eliminate this option. I believe the impact, this year and even more in the future, will be very positive both in elections and in the creation of public policy. State legislators, for example, will be more accountable to all voters, not just to party delegates.