What are the benefits of the Utah Citizen Legislature? | Notice

Utah is one of the few states to retain a Citizens’ Legislature. That is, one in which each member of the corps serves part-time and receives minimum salary ($285 for each session day, plus up to $100 in expenses for those who live more than 40 miles from the Capitol).

The beauty of this system is that legislators live and work among their constituents. They cannot leave home and hide behind the bureaucratic walls of full-time employment in a marble-walled capitol. They know what average Utahns want because they confront them daily. Their decisions are instantly noted by vocal neighbors.

The downside is that the needs of a fast-growing state (Utah grew more than any other state between 2010 and 2020, according to the census) may become greater than part-time legislators can handle, in particularly when they meet officially at an annual session. which is limited, by the state constitution, to 45 days.

So far, Utah defies that concern.

The National Conference of State Legislatures classifies 14 states as having citizen legislatures. Four of them, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota, have the most traditional citizen legislators, with a small staff. Utah is listed among 10 other states with slightly more complicated, but still part-time, low-paying legislatures. Utah is the most populous of the 14 states, and larger states tend to gravitate toward full-time legislatures.

And yet, Utah usually sits near the top of any list of places to live and do business. As if to point out, WalletHub on Tuesday named Utah the best place to start a business in 2023.

“A state that provides the ideal conditions for starting a business – access to money, skilled workers and affordable office space, for example – can help new businesses not only take off but also thrive,” said WalletHub.

This does not happen without governments, from city councils to the legislature, creating the conditions for prosperity.

Utah lawmakers have no shortage of big issues to tackle in the annual session that began Tuesday. Despite impressive snow totals so far this water year (which began Oct. 1), they face the daunting challenge of saving a Great Salt Lake that has suffered two decades of below-average rainfall and population growth that has diverted water upstream.

Solutions to this enormous environmental problem will require innovative thinking and expertise.

The state has a housing problem, fueled by growth that has outstripped housing supply, and which has been exacerbated by inflation and rising interest rates. Housing prices are too high for many families.

Lawmakers have tended to blame Washington for much of this problem. In his opening address to Tuesday’s legislative session, House Speaker Brad Wilson blamed high interest rates and excessive regulation, among other things. He urged local governments, in particular, to remove regulatory barriers to new construction. And yet, there can be a fine line between unnecessary regulation and rules, regarding flood control, aesthetics and other concerns, that make this a difficult issue.

Education is always a concern in family-friendly Utah, but it’s of particular concern now, with a general labor shortage hitting colleges hard.

Tax cuts are on the minds of many lawmakers this year, with the state facing a combined surplus of more than $3 billion. But every tax decision, whether it involves income, property or sales taxes, has consequences. Not all tax decisions should be made with only economic development in mind. The sales tax on food, for example, should be eliminated to help low-income families make ends meet.

These are also decisions requiring expertise.

We remain confident in the concept of a citizens’ legislature, but caution legislators to remain focused on the big issues and open to public input. Too often lawmakers are diverted to meaningless “message bills” or culture war issues during their 45 days.

Wilson told lawmakers that Utah stands “at one of those rare times when our choices will reverberate through generations.”

We have no doubts about this assessment.

This kind of pivot demands the best and highest form of public service. Done well, this session could be a resounding triumph for the notion of a citizen legislature and the value of government that remains as close to the people as possible.

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