Speaker Greg Hughes recaps the excellent work state lawmakers are doing in Utah.
Of the many meetings in which I participate as Utah Speaker of the House, one that I enjoy most is an annual Speakers’ Conference where state Speakers from around the country come together and discuss the issues facing their states. This summer there were 32 Speakers who participated. As we were all sitting around a table together, each person was given an opportunity to talk about the challenges they face within their legislature and state, and how they’re finding their way through those challenges.
Each of us had a nameplate and was identified by name and state, but we did not know who was a Republican and who was a Democrat. This had the effect of allowing us to truly discuss and collaborate, not really knowing who hailed from which party. It also added a valuable perspective that I, as a lawmaker, haven’t had before. I have a saying, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
I was listening to Speakers from different states talk about their most critical issues, a number of themes emerged.
One of the most critical issues facing many of my colleagues is a transportation initiative, or dealing with a gas tax that, over the years, shrinks and shrinks and shrinks while populations grow, transportation needs increase and the political will to address the funding issue just isn’t there. Many Speakers shared this as one of their most difficult issues, and one that they’re having a hard time finding consensus on.
I remember at the time, thinking of how our whole House, in a bipartisan way, and the whole Legislature, including our Senate colleagues, was able to come together and get this done. I was able to make a mental check on the transportation initiative. For the first time since 1996, we made a change and adopted a multi-modal, comprehensive transportation plan that begins to restore funding in our rapidly-growing state. We need expansion of roads, we need maintenance and we need repairs. We should be very proud of the work we did on this.
One of the other topics really troubling a lot of statehouses across this country right now is anti-discrimination and LGBT issues. The other side of that coin is religious freedom and religious liberties, and many states are struggling to find the policy answers to these two issues. I was able to make another mental check because here in Utah, we passed comprehensive reform that addressed discrimination against the LGBT community at the same time and in the same bill where we honored, respected and protected religious freedoms and our religious liberties. We were able to move the needle on that issue.
Probably the most important issue for public servants is our kids, the public schools they attend and how we fund them. Here in Utah, we have a robust traditional public education system and we also have a robust non-traditional public education system that we call charter schools.
There are sometimes conflicts between our charter schools and our traditional public schools and so we recently had a task force to deal with some of the oldest, longstanding disagreements and issues in funding these schools. From that task force, we were able to arrive at compromise legislation that brought together our traditional public schools and our charter schools on the issue of how each of these types of schools will be funded. We all did that together, arm in arm.
I sat in the Speakers’ conference and heard about the conflict and rancor that’s out there on this issue and I thought yet again that this is another box we can check. We’ve done some serious work on a difficult issue on which we’d been unable to find resolution for many years. We did not let perfect be the enemy of good, but rather, we worked together and found consensus.
Another big issue was Medicaid expansion – probably the hardest issue I’ve dealt with as a lawmaker. We have a saying up here that it’s easy to kill a bill and hard to pass one, by design. Medicaid expansion, which is a part of Obamacare, was the exception. It was probably much harder to not pass than to pass because there was a lot of momentum and a lot of “free” federal money. I use the word “free” loosely.
There was a lot of money that the federal government was willing to pay up front but there would be a day, in years to come, when states would have a portion they would have to pay. Many states chose to take advantage of those federal dollars but didn’t pay as much attention to what they might owe once it came due.
Well, 2017 is when states begin to pay their portion and at this conference, I heard colleagues around the country state that enrollment rates are far greater than what was predicted. The cost of delivering the health care is much higher than was estimated. Many states are looking at the situation before them and are struggling with an understanding of how they’re going to pay for this program, asking what they’ll have to go without as a state in order to make up for the increased costs. Unlike the federal government that prints money and deficit spends, states balance budgets.
As I listened to my colleagues explaining this challenge, I thought that, despite how difficult it was, this is yet another box we were able to check in terms of avoiding such a budget challenge.
At the same time, coming to the realization that Obamacare math isn’t quite as solid as some would have us believe and rejecting the idea that it is good policy to take the money now and worry about the consequences later, we focused squarely on helping the most needy of our state. We passed a plan that would focus on, and expand traditional Medicaid to, the neediest among us who aren’t already covered.
We’ve also tackled justice reform. Too often, we’re finding that incarcerated individuals have drug addiction problems that are leading them to commit crimes, yet we’re spending taxpayer dollars incarcerating them just to see 50 percent of them return. We’ve had to acknowledge that sometimes the real problem is one of addiction.
We had a massive initiative, called the Justice Reform Initiative, or JRI. In that reform we took on how we sentence people and if they’re sick, as opposed to hardened criminals, we look to help them through behavioral health and addiction treatment. This allows us to address the issues leading to the criminal behavior without spending money simply on incarceration and returning them to the community without support.
It was a very tough bill to pass but it was the right thing to do. After a lot of bipartisan collaboration with state lawmakers, county attorneys and county prosecutors, we were able to pass a comprehensive plan. I’m proud of that. At a time when the political pressure was exclusively behind one solution that relied on the weak promises of the federal government and put our state at risk, we were able to focus on the needy and find our own solution.
Another issue we took on as we looked at the needy and those most vulnerable among us was our homelessness initiative. The County of Salt Lake, the City of Salt Lake City and this State Legislature, realizing that we pay for these problems in one way or another, came together in a bipartisan, collaborative way, to look at this issue in our state. The problem is growing in a very dangerous way and it impacts not only the individual and their trajectory in life, but innocent children who find themselves in these environments; it hurts economies and the businesses in the area where these problems are occurring.
We’ve all had to put our political differences aside and tackle this issue together. I tell my colleagues all the time that anything that’s going to make a difference and that’s easy to do has probably already been done. The only things we have left to do are the impactful things that are hard. This is another issue we’ve taken on and we’ve not blinked. We are making a difference.
Another issue that we talked about as we sat around that table is budget shortfalls. Of the 32 states that were together at this conference, 12 of them are experiencing budget shortfalls. What that means is that the budgets they passed in their last legislative sessions made assumptions about tax collections that were higher than they’re experiencing, so state government is unable to meet its obligations. These legislatures have to go into special session and cut back on their appropriations.
Utah doesn’t have that challenge. Our challenge as a state is we’ve had record quarters of economic growth. The spike hasn’t been sky high, rather it’s been steady growth, but our challenge has been to make sure that our eyes aren’t bigger than our appetites and that we don’t commit taxpayers to a state budget that would be difficult to pay for.
We are conservative with our numbers when we set our budgets so we don’t find ourselves yo-yoing appropriations, making new spending promises in our general session only to come back a few months later and, finding we can’t keep the commitments we’ve made, and have to cut back. Some states, due to the way they project their budgets or because of fluctuations in their economy, need to come back into special session. We’ve done that before in our state but we generally have a high level of success and are able to honor the commitments we make, when it comes to careful budgeting and projecting. As I listened to some of the challenges faced by other states, I think we’re fortunate in the State of Utah for the approach that we take with taxpayer money.
There are also many shared challenges. I spoke of the federal intrusion in state government and in Utahns’ lives, and that heavy-handedness is felt in a bipartisan way among states across the country.
We all share challenges in the initiative process. Many times a myopic initiative can be passed by a state that has ripple effects in budget, and unintended consequences that legislatures are forced to grapple with. We have a strong initiative law here in Utah and we need to make sure that we’re communicating with constituents effectively so they don’t feel like we’re not addressing their concerns and that they need to take on the issues themselves in a myopic way, leading to unintended consequences.
I will tell you this – this House and every member in it in the last few years has taken on incredible challenges, issues to which other states simply can’t find resolutions. I’m very proud of our members. I’m very proud of the work that we do. I’m proud of the public servants that we are and how we have resolved to leave this place better than we found it. And I am here to report that we are doing this.
I share this with you now so that you can take inventory of the hard work and heavy lifting that happens here in the House, in the Senate, in the Legislature, in state government. Many states wish that more of this were happening more often in their states, that they too could see this sort of progress. So congratulations to all; we have much of which to be proud of.