It’s been 20 years since Merrill Nelson served one term in the Utah House of Representatives, but this year’s legislative redistricting has given him the opportunity to seek another. He’s a Republican who lives in Grantsville, and the new boundaries of District 68 divide Tooele County and extend all the way to Milford in Beaver County. Most of Juab County, including Eureka, is also now in District 68, and that’s where the Democratic candidate, Tom Nedreberg, comes from.
Nelson challenged the incumbent Republican in District 68, Bill Wright. Wright appeared vulnerable after sponsoring a couple of controversial bills. One would have required Utah schools to teach an abstinence-only sex education curriculum. It was vetoed by Governor Gary Herbert. The other, House Bill 116, established a “guest worker” program for undocumented immigrants. Wright saw it as a way to make sure farmers can hire the workers they need.
Wright still wonders why the issue got Republican voters so upset. “The solution seems simple,” he told KUER. “Some might say, ‘Well, you don’t understand.’ Maybe I don’t. It’s a real simple solution, but when you throw it out, the bias and the politics and this other stuff, it becomes really, very – we made a very complicated issue out of a simple solution.”
Merrill Nelson, who’s an attorney, says House Bill 116 was a pointless effort and the state ought to pursue more practical solutions.
“Legislative counsel, even the sponsor, recognized that it was probably not a constitutional piece of legislation,” Nelson says. “Certainly, it would require a federal waiver, federal authorization. And the recent Arizona case in the U-S Supreme Court has reaffirmed that the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over immigration and naturalization issues and over issuance of work permits to those who are here illegally, so it’s really not a state function.”
There was enough discontent with Wright to give Nelson a close victory in the Republican primary in June. His Democratic opponent in next week’s election is Tom Nedreberg, the school technology director from the Tintic School District in Eureka and a former principal of both Tintic High School and Eureka Elementary.
The Snake Valley on the Utah-Nevada state line is part of District 68. Residents on the Utah side believe they’re threatened by a plan to pump billions of gallons of groundwater to Las Vegas from the valleys of the Great Basin. Both candidates agree on protecting Utah’s interest. Tom Nedreberg says the water needs to stay where it is.
He says, “If you drill holes in Nevada and it drains water from Utah, you need to protect the water from Utah. And that, to me, is the bottom line, is protecting what we have here in Utah. It’s also important to me to protect the lives and the lifestyles of people that live out there in the Snake Valley.”
Almost all the land in District 68 belongs to the federal government, and both candidates would like to see new ways to increase state and local revenue from that land. Nedreberg thinks the bill passed in the last session demanding the federal government turn over title to its land to the state is a bad idea.
“Whenever there’s a deal that needs to be made, we need to make sure that we’re at the bargaining table and we need to definitely work hard for our own bargaining interests,” Nedreberg tells KUER. “But I don’t believe that we should be out there sending message bills, spending 3 million dollars that could be spent better elsewhere, trying to defend something that we are pretty sure is gonna lose in court.”
Nelson would also like to avoid message bills, and he thinks the state could try some new strategies to help increase revenue from Utah’s public lands.
He argues,“Where we can work out a sale, an exchange, and those have been worked effectively through the years, both approaches, as well as long-term leases, we can work out long-term leases with the federal government and still derive the benefit that we need as a state.”
Where the two candidates’ views contrast most dramatically is on education funding. Nelson believes the state needs to spend more on its public schools, but he’s not ready to raise taxes to do it.
“I applaud our teachers,” Nelson says. “They do so well with so little. It’s amazing what they do. And I think what they can do is because they have good parents, for the most part, who really want the best for their kids and they do participate at home. That’s really the key, if you get an interested student with interested parents and dedicated teachers, then you can do a whole lot with less money, which Utah’s been doing now for generations.”
Nelson says he supports Governor Herbert’s effort to dedicate the state’s surplus revenues to public schools.
Nedreberg, on the other hand, is the current vice-president of the Utah Education Association. He wants to see more money invested in teachers and in reducing class sizes.
“We’ve been at the bottom of the nation in funding per student since 1988,” says Nedreberg. “You can’t get the best education if you’re continually funding at the least level. We need to increase funding.”
Because of his position with U-E-A, Nedreberg faces a potential conflict of interest as both a lobbyist and a legislator. He’s promising to address that.
“Well, the position that I have with the Utah Education Association is a part-time position,” he says, “and, obviously, if I were elected and were in the legislature, is something that I would have to take a leave of absence from. But I also feel very strongly about advocating for children and for education around the state and this gives me an opportunity to do that.”
Nedreberg concedes there aren’t a lot of Democrats in District 68. But he agrees with Nelson that legislators need to be looking for Utah solutions without getting distracted by the national political platforms. Whoever wins, it appears the wide-open counties of western Utah will have a more moderate political voice in the Utah House of Representatives than they’ve had for many years.