Frank R. Pignanelli and LaVarr Webb: Exploring the legislative session hangover headaches

After a legislative session, politicos experience a few “hangover” weeks as they decompress and review the session’s impacts. Although only Frank has experience with real hangovers, your columnists explore the aftershocks of the frenzied session.

Much has been made of supposed legislative attempts to seize power at the expense of other branches and levels of government. Lawmakers proposed a constitutional amendment allowing the legislature to call itself into special session, gave themselves the ability to intervene in lawsuits without relying on the attorney general and debated other similar issues. Are lawmakers being reasonable, or is this an unwarranted power grab?

Pignanelli: “Real politics are the possession and distribution of power.” — Benjamin Disraeli

The critiques of the Legislature are akin to criticisms of the loud partygoer who shouts outrageous insults, but sometimes even the obnoxious say things that need to be said. As a former lawmaker, I sympathize with legislators’ frustrations.

The traditional notion of separation of powers is strained. Legislators want the executive branch (including the attorney general) to intervene in lawsuits or provide opinions when necessary. Also, lawmakers believe some issues (i.e. the statutory authority given to the governor to institute special elections) require additional legislative activity through a special session that can only be called by the governor. Thus, the part-time Legislature is trying to reassert its authority in litigation activities and by expanding special sessions.

So that loud guy at the party is unsettling, but sometimes the critiques are true. Or as Italians say “In vino veritas” (which means “in wine, truth”).

Webb: The natural tension among branches and levels of government is ever-present and is healthy. If pushing, pulling and vigorous competition occurs, we don’t need to worry about any particular level or branch gaining too much power and becoming despotic. The Founders clearly intended such rivalries.

However, that it is rather arrogant for legislators to routinely stomp on local governments while complaining about federal overreach. The state may have created local governments, and the locals may not enjoy constitutional protections, but the principle of the best governance being closest to home certainly still holds.

The Legislature created an authority to govern a huge part of Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant as an inland port. Salt Lake City is crying foul and demanding a gubernatorial veto. Why did this happen, and who’s right in this debate?

Pignanelli: Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski valiantly pushed back against this encroachment on Salt Lake City, but the legacy she inherited was too heavy. For several decades, state officials have become increasingly worried the capital city is unable to behave itself in important economic development matters. Former agency directors stalled combined efforts to attract jobs. Prior mayors attacked residents of other cities who drive to the city to shop and work. Moves by the Biskupski administration to develop a regulatory scheme that promoted the inland port could not overcome these long-held perceptions.

The port is a big deal with potential to foster many jobs in manufacturing and transportation. Many observers were hopeful the exhaustive public hearing process of the prison relocation would have been repeated for this. So strange items need to be explained (e.g. the mayor has no seat on the governing board, the expanse of the area, etc.)

Webb: There’s no question that lawmakers steamrolled Salt Lake City in creating the governance structure. On the other hand, the inland port vision and momentum came mostly from the state level, and the city was moving too slowly.

I think the state and city can, and should, work out something more acceptable to both. The numerous cities around the Point of the Mountain area ought to be watching this tug-of-war very closely — because a similar governance authority could be in the works for that region. There’s time to resolve this in a special session.

Lawmakers headed off the Our Schools Now ballot proposal by boosting public education funding and making future promises. Marijuana legislation and Medicaid expansion also passed. These efforts were in response to citizen initiative campaigns. Will this action blunt the initiatives?

Pignanelli: Most of the petitions were struggling anyway, but the Legislature solidified its demise through various actions. Only the marijuana initiative may have residual momentum to succeed.

Webb: It’s always better to make public policy in the legislature, rather than by ballot initiatives. But ballot measures can be very effective in forcing legislative action. Our Schools Now made a good deal, assuming that voters embrace a 10-cent fuel tax increase in November. The Medicaid expansion and medical marijuana initiatives will carry on. Legislative work on those issues will give initiative opponents the ability to say that progress is being made, so the ballot proposals are not necessary.

In the case of medical marijuana, I believe that is true. That initiative has a lot of flaws. Given legislative and federal action, there exists a sensible, science-based way forward to create cannabis-based medicines without the excesses allowed under the initiative proposal.