The legislative session is already nearly half over, with some delicate issues facing Utah’s lawmakers. Here are some of the trickiest.
Should major policy issues like Medicaid expansion and tax increases for education be placed before voters if the Legislature won’t pass them?
(Pignanelli) “These things [gang warfare] gotta happen every five years or so … helps get rid of the bad blood.” — Peter Clemenza, "The Godfather Part I"
Experience has taught me occasional use of the “Clemenza Rule” makes for good policymaking.
For several years, various business, community and political groups have been battling each other over education, transportation, planning and Medicaid issues. Legislators have served as tireless proxy warriors for these conflicts, but per Clemenza, the battlefield needs to be expanded to the general public.
Although initially divisive, there is great societal advantage for the various factions to wage a political war for the hearts and minds of Utahns on these issues. Initiatives, referendums and ballot questions provide great opportunities for vigorous discussion and deliberation by voters on selective matters (plus, the fighting between the campaigns sheds the bad blood). Utahns possess the common sense and intelligence to supply appropriate direction to officials through these electioneering activities.
[Readers: The insightful analysis of Mr. Clemenza is another example of how the challenges of modern life can be resolved with the wisdom contained in America's greatest literary masterpiece: the two Godfather movies.]
(Webb) As a general rule, public policy should be enacted by the lawmakers elected to represent us. However, it doesn’t hurt for voters periodically to weigh in directly on major issues. Unlike California, where citizen referenda are out of control, few issues get on Utah’s ballot.
Legislators wouldn’t be shirking their responsibility by periodically putting something on the ballot, either as an advisory vote, or to create a new law. They already require local governments to put certain tax matters, like bonding for school buildings, on the ballot.
Some issues are really big, really important and really difficult. So why not let citizens express their support or opposition? The tax increase for education proposed by many business leaders and Education First, for example, could be a game-changer for Utah education, helping Utah gain top-10 education status. But the tax boost is large enough that the Legislature will never pass it. So why not let voters decide if they want to make the investment?
Same with Medicaid expansion. It’s a difficult issue pitting our compassion against fiscal prudence. So why not let citizens directly have a say?
Should online retailers be required to collect sales taxes?
(Pignanelli) These are the inventions and achievements that propelled humanity to higher levels of enlightenment, health and prosperity: utilization of fire, the wheel, agriculture, wine, the printing press, marinara sauce, flight, wireless communications and the Internet. Web applications continue to expand and improve our everyday lives. Therefore, all should be nervous about government messing with this remarkable development. The time will come when we can adequately assess taxes on e-commerce retailers, but not now. Innovative small businesses are selling products by traditional and online means, and we need to allow this to develop.
(Webb) The sales tax is one of the three legs of a balanced tax system that provides money for essential public services. We can’t continue to let the sales tax erode away. More and more purchases are being made online, and the trend will accelerate. Paying sales and use tax is the current law, whether purchases are made online or at a local store. Collecting the tax is not imposing a new tax. It’s just treating online merchants the same as your neighborhood shops.
Certainly, this is difficult. A patchwork of state laws covering the thousands of local tax rates is tough to manage. But Utah ought to require tax collection, reducing tax rates to keep revenue neutral, and continue pushing for a federal solution.
Medical marijuana legislation took a hit when the LDS Church came out against it. Any chances of passing?
(Pignanelli) State Sen. Mark Madsen deserves a merit badge of courage for raising this subject in the last several legislative sessions. His bill is DOA because of the recent announcement, but the issue survives. [Gov. Gary Herbert deserves a shout-out for using the word "Doobie" in a press conference when explaining his position.]
Legislation offered by Sen. Evan Vickers and Rep. Brad Daw will likely pass, allowing consumption of certain cannabis extracts. The always sensible Sen. Brian Shiozawa is offering a resolution requesting the federal government to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug so researchers can investigate the benefits of medical marijuana. Suffering Utahns deserve to access this relief.
(Webb) There’s a reason many law enforcement officials oppose medical marijuana. They see the abuses. If marijuana is to be accepted as medicine it ought to go through the rigorous safety and approval processes required of new medicines. Medical value should be determined by scientific research and laboratory tests, not by politics or anecdotes about miracle cures.