Gas Chambers, Medicaid and Pot: Legislature Week 5 | Buzz Blog

Gas Chambers, Medicaid and Pot: Legislature Week 5

What happened last week at the Utah Legislature?

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Week five of the 2016 legislative session wrapped up last week, and there are now only two weeks of the session left. This is how some of the pressing issues stand: 

DEATH PENALTY
A Senate committee gave its approval to a bill abolishing the death penalty in Utah. SB159, from Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, would end the practice moving forward, although it would not apply to any of the nine inmates who are currently on death row in Utah. Those who oppose the bill include Eagle Forum's Maryann Christensen, who testified that not putting a murderer to death "cheapens" the life of the person they killed. Uquhart, however, argues that the death penalty is not only far more expensive than life-in-prison (due to the lengthy mandatory appeal process), but also doesn't actually work as a deterrant. "Government shouldn't be in the business of killing," Urquhart said. The bill passed out of committee with a vote of 5-2, and now heads to the full Senate for consideration. 

A health-care advocacy group placed more than 360 at the Utah State Capitol Oct. 21 to represent the number of estimated deaths resulting from Utah's failure to expand Medicaid. - ALLIANCE FOR A BETTER UTAH
  • Alliance for a Better Utah
  • A health-care advocacy group placed more than 360 at the Utah State Capitol Oct. 21 to represent the number of estimated deaths resulting from Utah's failure to expand Medicaid.
MEDICAID EXPANSION
In a somewhat unexpected move, a Senate committee passed a bill that would opt the state into the full Medicaid Expansion proposal under the Affordable Care Act. SB77, from Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, is expected to face a tough battle when it faces the full Senate, as many in the majority have already begun arguing that the success stories that have come out of the more than 30 states that have chosen full Medicaid Expansion are exaggerated. Davis was joined by Utah's Episcopal Bishop, and dozens of citizens who are facing critical medical issues or have seen family members pass away because they fell into the "coverage gap," and couldn't get healthcare. The bill now heads to the full Senate.

Meanwhile in the House, which has been the biggest hurdle to passing some form of expansion to cover Utah's uninsured, unveiled its own proposal from House Majority Leader James Dunnigan, R-Dunnigan. While Davis' bill would cover every Utahn in the coverage gap, Dunnigan's is estimated to only cover about 16,000 people, and prioritizes parolees and the chronically homeless. While the Senate has passed Medicaid Expansion plans in past years, it has been the House of Representatives that has yet to actually give its approval, leaving the estimated 40,000 to 60,000 Utahns in the gap. Dunnigan's bill, although it only covers a small fraction of the gap, may be the only way forward, given that its sponsor is the second most powerful member of the House and the other reps are unlikely to go against him and give approval to the Senate's bill. 

BOOZE TASTINGS
The full House gave its approval to a bill slightly loosening Utah's strict liquor laws. HB228, from Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, would allow Utah distilleries to offer tastings, just like local wine-makers and breweries do. It was far from unanimous, however, as many lawmakers argued that Utah should stay focused on so-called "family values" and not try to "liberalize" liquor laws. Froerer's arguments that distilleries are being run out of business without tastings, however, won the day and the House voted 43-29 in favor. The bill now goes to the Senate Business and Labor committee.

Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, presents her bill to the House Health and Human Services Committee. - ERIC ETHINGTON
  • Eric Ethington
  • Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, presents her bill to the House Health and Human Services Committee.
ANIMAL GAS CHAMBERS
Despite receiving near-unanimous approval in committee, Rep. Johnny Anderson's, R-Taylorsville, bill to ban the use of gas chambers by animal shelters was defeated on the House floor by a vote of 31-40. A group of about 30 citizens, organized by the Humane Society of Utah, came to the Capitol to support the bill, saying that other forms of euthanasia are far more humane. Other lawmakers, however, including Rep. Brad King, D-Price, argued that animal shelters should be free to use whatever means to euthanize they deem most humane.

RIGHT TO DIE
Lawmakers in the House Health and Human Services committee faced an extremely emotional hearing this week, as Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, presented her bill granting terminally-ill Utahns the right to obtain life-ending prescription medication under certain circumstances. Several of those who testified on behalf of the bill are dying of cancer, and told legislators that all they want is to be able to say goodbye peacefully to their family and friends before their illnesses incapacitate them with pain. Testifying against the bill was the Utah Eagle Forum, Sutherland Institute, and United Families International who all argued that while the final weeks of these diseases can be indeed by devastating, those experiences bring families closer together. The committee voted unanimously to send the bill back for more study during the interim before the 2017 session.

Onlookers in the Senate gallery erupt in applause after Sen. Mark Madsen's medical marijuana bill passes the Senate. - ERIC ETHINGTON
  • Eric Ethington
  • Onlookers in the Senate gallery erupt in applause after Sen. Mark Madsen's medical marijuana bill passes the Senate.
MEDICAL MARIJUANA
Surprisingly, the Utah Senate gave its stamp of approval to both medical marijuana bills this week. Sen. Evan Vickers', R-Cedar City, more limited approach would only allow a small portion of the plants, in the form of cannibidiol, the bill received a vote of 18-8. Meanwhile, Sen. Mark Madsen's, R-Saratoga Springs, more comprehensive SB73 would allow much more of the marijuana plant to be prescribed by doctors. Madsen has been the driving force behind push to get Utah to join the 23 other states who have legalized medical marijuana for the last two years, ever since he acknowledged that he used marijuana medicinally for chronic back pain after he overdosed on prescription pain killers. Although some senators argued that Utah should reject the proposal on moral and religious grounds, the bill still passed 17 to 12. Both bills are awaiting a hearing in House committees.

On a related note, the Utah Senate also unanimously passed a resolution asking Congress to reclassify Marijuana, which is currently listed as a Schedule 1 narcotic alongside more hardcore drugs, which makes it a felony to conduct scientific research into its effects.

In addition to covering state politics for City Weekly, Eric Ethington is communications director for Political Research Associates.

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