Rural lawmakers meet to highlight issues
Water, land, education and economic topics discussed at unique forum
It seems rural legislators across the state of Utah have the same major concerns. These issues include water, land use and education, among others.
And of course the state budget - constrained by a sagging economy - is included with those concerns, as well.
These and other topics were apparent during the first- ever rural news conference held at the Utah State Capitol building on Thursday, March 4 as 13 state senators and representatives availed themselves to the rural newspaper media at the Utah State House of Representatives.
While each had their emphasis' on various issues in their respective districts, it was obvious they were together on many concerns facing country folk in the Beehive State.
"Small newspapers are the conduit to the people we serve," said State Sen. Kevin Van Tassell (R-26). "They provide correct information for their readership."
Each of the representatives present spoke, providing their take on this year's legislative session and commenting on recent events, both within the state and those that concern Utahns nationally.
"We are losing jobs and school trust lands money because of the power the federal government is asserting," said Rep. Kraig Powell (R-54). "With the public lands bill we are working on, Utah will be in the limelight because we will be one of the first to do this kind of thing."
There are presently three bills in progress in the legislature that propose to give the state eminent domain authority over certain federal lands and to fund the ensuing court battles to defend those bills that legislators say will surely come.
All three local representatives for Carbon County were present at the press conference.
Sen. David Hinkins (R-27) talked about a bill that he had sponsored and that passed concerning oil and gas money in conjunction with the Navajo Reservation in San Juan County.
"We just need to be sure that money benefits the people that live on the reservation in Utah and doesn't go to the Arizona side," he said.
He also expressed his pleasure seeing the Utah State-College of Eastern Utah merger take place, a vote that had only been completed a couple of hours before he spoke to the rural media.
"I think this is a great opportunity for higher education in Price and Blanding, and I think we will see more grant money coming our way because of it too."
Representative Christine Watkins (D-69) said that she had been delighted to sponsor the Italian-American legislation which recoginizes the contribution those immigrants provided to Utah and, of course, to the "Carbon County area."
"I am the only 'D' (Democrat) in the room," she joked as she talked about legislation she has been involved in which also included education bills and water legislation.
Rep. Patrick Painter (R-67), who represents the western third of Carbon County talked about bills he has been working on including land issue bills and a constitutional amendment which would take away unfair taxation on water delivery systems.
Because the bill he has been working on is a constitutional change it will be on the ballot for a public vote in November.
Painter and Watkins also lauded the USU-CEU merger as a good thing for the area.
"I think the equation on this merger is that one plus one will equal three with this change," stated Painter.
Both Sen. Dennis Stowell (R-28) and Rep. Evan Vickers (R-72) pointed out that the composition of the Utah State Board of Regents' (governing board over higher education in the state) membership had been much more slanted toward populated areas than it should have been. They are both working on a bill to change the makeup so the board is more equitable.
Stowell also had an interesting take on the budgeting process and the cuts that the state has been and is faced with.
"While we are facing some bigger cuts this year, I have talked to people about the cuts we made last year and most say they haven't seen a change in government services since those cuts came into affect," he said. "I think that shows we are just getting more efficient in state government."
Rep. Ronda Rudd Menlove (R-1) told about efforts to get state healthcare reform through the legislature. She said that electronic records and record access are big issues and that she believed health care reform moves that the state is trying to make should be attempted, and that the federal government should let the state try to make its way through the problems.
She also pointed out that budget cuts, which will affect all aspects of life in Utah, can be made up in many ways by community action.
"The budget cuts that are coming will mean less government services particularly in the areas of aging, disability, etc." she stated. "People need to reach out to neighbors and their community to help. The state government will no longer be able to provide many of the services that have been available."
Another issue that came up was that often it seems rural Utah and its representatives are divided and don't present a unified front that is needed to influence things on the hill. The rural caucus (state senators and representatives with rural constituencies) have been meeting for years and during each session get together every week to discuss issues and listen to parties who have concerns about rural problems.
"Changes are coming to rural Utah that in the next decade will define how the rural part of the state will look for a long time," said Sen. Ralph Okerlund (R-24).
"I assure you that the rural legislators - through the caucus - have become a cohesive force that can influence policy and legislation. We were recently called in and asked about our take on some issues, because the legislatures leadership knows we need to be heard."