With the 2013 general session of the Utah Legislature over, now is the time to applaud the wins and survey the damage. As many people have noted, it was not the most exciting of sessions no open-records law or sex education to get folks riled up. There were guns and gays, education and ethics, but it was more subdued than we've gotten used to.
But subdued should not be cause for celebration. Citizens emerged far from victorious. This year, the subtle divide in the Utah Legislature was between industry and individuals. And, unfortunately, for the many ordinary individuals who make up the great state of Utah, industry was the winner.
Clean air was a big topic going into the session but what came of it? All the outside-the-box ideas were dismissed out of hand. Such forward-thinking ideas as transit pass credits, regulations stricter than the EPA's, and mandating the best clean-air technology, were barely heard before being voted down, some without the benefit of a hearing.
What were we given in their stead? A cap on clean-air vehicles in HOV lanes, with no discussion on capping the pay-to-drive SUV owners; increased freeway speeds, an established cause of increased emissions, even in rural areas; and a likely hike for natural gas ratepayers to cover the cost of converting transit fleet vehicles to clean natural gas, or CNG.
The latter, pushed by Gov. Gary Herbert as his "big" idea to help air quality, is especially troubling. A utility rate increase will negatively impact lower-income Utahns and it isn't even a new or innovative idea. There will be an increased need for infrastructure to support these vehicles, and while CNG is cleaner than coal/gas, it is far from where we need to be to make any measurable difference.
In short, meaningful discussion about air pollution was hijacked in deference to the true favorite of the legislature industry.
Public education left everyone tripping over themselves to thank the Legislature for allocating a sufficient amount of money to cover projected increases in enrollment numbers. What one would assume would be a status quo allocation has been withheld in previous years, under the all-too-often-heard mantra on education funding do more with less! And what of the rest of the education budget? We turned our backs on smaller class sizes, innovative preschool solutions, and other traditional opportunities in favor of industry-favored technology and online bequests.
But the real industry winner was the prison relocation plan, specifically for real estate executives and land developers. This bill took a path not unlike a ride at Lagoon, from the opening day until the final gavel. When the dust finally settled, we were left with essentially the same bad bill we started with. But because the middle 43 days saw multiple committee hearings, numerous amendments, last-day negotiations and closed-door discussions, we were expected to be relieved with what we got.
Unfortunately, we got a new committee with $1 million in operating funds and staffed by a bunch of industry insiders (real estate and development professionals) charged with moving the project forward. Granted, they can't make the final decision, but it was clear this decision was made long before the session began.
The fact that only promises and mystery surround the $400 million shortfall between the estimated $100 million revenue from the sale of the prison property and the $550 million expense to build a new prison was only concerning to community groups that spoke against it.
While this year's session wasn't overly memorable, perhaps these more mundane sessions are the ones we should be paying the most attention. It may not be sexy, but it is well worth our concern. When big industry wins, individuals, like you and me, lose.
Maryann Martindale is executive director of Alliance for a Better UTAH. She lives in Salt Lake City.