Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Utah Legislature blasting off with election-year session

The Utah Legislature blasts off tomorrow morning, commencing its 45-day, election-year session. We take a look at the state of Utah’s lawmaking body.

Various recent polls measuring the Legislature’s job performance range from a lousy 39 percent approval rating (Salt Lake Tribune/Survey USA) to a healthy 57 percent approval (UtahPolicy.com/Dan Jones). How do Utahns really perceive the Legislature?

Pignanelli: "Public opinion is stronger than the legislature, and nearly as strong as the ten commandments." — Charles Dudley Warner

Republicans, Democrats and independents frequently inquire how I spend time at the Capitol "with those people" and remain sane. I always respond the best therapy for a legislative session is a strong dose of humor.

Utahns have amusing perceptions towards their Legislature. Some think it a bizarre political World Wrestling Federation contest with cartoonish characters wrestling each other, while grunting and groaning. Others are suspicious of a secret society where mysterious figures convocate in dark chambers, chanting strange oaths and incantations. Too many surmise the Capitol is a lobbyist jungle gym, with spirited hijinks and backslapping. (Lawmakers, lobbyists and staff describe their experience as chained to oars, pulling to a never-ending voyage on a giant slave ship.)

Because the media, movies and blog sites molds citizens’ perceptions, their opinions of the Legislature can be blemished. With 30 years of experience as a lawmaker and lobbyist, I assure readers every legislator — regardless of party — is a decent hard-working soul who believes his/her agenda is in the best interest of the state. But because the House and Senate must be filled with human beings, they are bodies brimming with emotion, ego, compassion, ambition, intelligence, silliness, self-righteousness and sincere dedication. So my prescription of engaging the process with humor has served me and others well.

But I remain grateful our wise drafters of the Constitution set mandatory time limits on all this fun.

Webb: Here’s a great thing about the Legislature: When it’s over, spring is here!

The truth is, Utahns like their Legislature, and particularly their own lawmaker, just fine. And with good reason. Utah’s 104 lawmakers quickly and efficiently handle the state’s business. Gridlock and dysfunction are seldom seen. They balance the budget, take care of the state’s greatest needs, and do it year after year.

Utah’s lawmakers are like everyone else, working regular jobs, living in our neighborhoods, interacting with constituents. They are approachable. They are in tune with state needs and, for the most part, they look out for the state’s best interests.

Certainly, the Legislature has its right-wing and left-wing, its stars and duds. Silly legislation is introduced and eyebrow-raising speeches are given. But the laws that survive the gauntlet of committee hearings, floor action and gubernatorial signing or vetoing are usually (although not always) good for the state.

Will election-year politics influence legislative actions?

Pignanelli: Many politicians boast their votes and actions are boldly made despite an upcoming re-election. Numerous special-interest organizations scream officials should enact policies without deference to campaign strategies. This is all malarkey. We want all office-holders worried about re-election (most of them are, despite the bravado). The 2016 legislative session will prompt grandstanding, emotional speeches, press conferences and message bills to solidify support for incumbents. For some this is annoying. For others, it's great entertainment (see above). But, it is a vestige of democracy.

Webb: Every politician has one eye on the next election. When this keeps legislators responsive to citizens and voters, such accountability is good. But it’s bad if election concerns paralyze legislators and prevent them from making difficult votes. In the past, legislators have sometimes been overly concerned about a narrow group of constituents — the party delegates that could decide their fates. Now, with the option of gathering signatures to get on the primary ballot, they need not be so concerned about a relatively few delegates and can be more representative of all their constituents.

Can Democrats have any influence on the legislative process or outcome?

Pignanelli: Shrewd messaging to the media and clever backroom tactics are the best tools for a minority party to achieve some objectives. Current Democrats have impacted clean-air and other state policies. If they are willing to increase cunning in political maneuvering, they could mold other key objectives in education, environment and economic development.

Webb: It’s true that Republicans can (and do) roll over Democrats any time they wish. Elections have consequences. Republicans dominate because voters elected them. Republicans and Democrats have different ideologies and different world views. Republicans enjoy an overwhelming majority, so their priorities should prevail.

But in Utah (unlike Congress and many other states), Republican leadership is actually magnanimous toward Democratic lawmakers. Democrats regularly sponsor and pass important bills. Most legislation is not partisan in nature and votes often don’t follow party lines. Democratic influence is also magnified through the news media. If you are silly enough to be a Democrat, Utah isn’t a bad place to be.