By car, plane but likely not on mass transit, members of the Utah State Legislature have found their way back to the capital city, filtering in from all corners of the Beehive State to commence 45 days of lawmaking.
At this very moment, the legislators—many of them attorneys, developers, ranchers and small-business men and women by day—are sitting through "appropriations" meetings, puzzling about how best to spend your money.
For generations, this public show of democracy has had a tendency to draw intrigue and provoke ire from much of the state. Utah is a quirky place dominated by extremes. Like its summers and winters, its politics are either sweaty hot or icy cold—a possible consequence of the lopsided number of Republicans versus that of Democrats in both the House and the Senate.
This imbalance of political ideology—which, at 12 Democratic house members to the Republicans' 63, and five Democratic senators to the Republicans' 24, is at its second-largest gap in the past 80 years—has a tendency to destroy the perception that meaningful debate occurs in Zion when the Legislature convenes.
If bodies and party affiliations are all that matter, defeats and victories are foregone conclusions. But politics should be a lot more like that other, much more popular, American pastime: football.
In football stadiums across the country—even in Utah—there is a belief that the crowd matters. In College Station, Texas, where the Texas A&M Aggies play, the student body is thought of as the "12th Man" (11 football players take the field in college and professional football). Same goes for the fans of the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks—the team's crowd, among the loudest in professional football—are called the 12th man.
During this legislative session, around 800 bills, or new laws and amendments to laws, will be put forth. Hundreds will be approved. All of them, one way or another, will impact how Utahns live their lives.
Thumbing a nose at this gathering is among the worst sorts of apathy. Lack of participation on citizens' behalf is little more than a surrender to the whims and wants of these elected leaders and whoever it is that happens to be twisting their ears—and you can be sure someone is twisting their ears.
But, in 2015, why shouldn't you be doing the ear-twisting? The grand marble rooms and the imposing granite building that make up the State Capitol belong to you. Go inside and walk around. Make yourself at home. And when the opportunity arises and a topic dear to your heart is considered, make the elected leaders—and the lobbyists and campaign contributors who throw cash their way—hear you.
The Rules of Engagement
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and the right-leaning Eagle Forum aren't often allied on the same side of an issue. But when it comes to encouraging citizens to participate in the political process, the two groups agree that more is better.
Both of these groups, and many others, including the League of Women Voters and the conservative Libertas Institute, have hosted or will be hosting special events during the legislative session aimed at training citizens on how to lobby their legislators and take a more active role in the process.
By sheer numbers, the legislative session is daunting: in 45 days, 104 elected politicians lock horns over roughly 800 proposed bills, of which a few hundred see the light of day (in 2014, 486 bills were passed). As of press time, there were 470 registered lobbyists in Utah, or 4 1/2 for every legislator. And, of the money that pours into legislators' campaign vaults, 82 percent, according to a study by The Salt Lake Tribune, comes from special interests—not individual constituents.
Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute of Utah—an organization that lobbies on behalf of private property rights and government deregulation—admits the legislative process can be intimidating. But he and his counterparts in the advocacy world say they would welcome more citizen lobbyists on Capitol Hill.
"We are limited by our humanity, and we can't juggle more balls than we can," Boyack says. "The fact that more people are paying attention increases the likelihood that the net result will be a positive one."
Chief among the reasons that a person might find themselves unable to march up the steps of the Capitol during the legislative session is that most of the people's business is done during working hours.
Drop an E-mail
For those who can't break away and attend the meetings that are important to them, Jenn Gonnelly, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Utah, says Utah has "one of the best websites in the country for following our Legislature."
Along with being quite easy to navigate, the state's website, Le.Utah.gov, catalogs audio recordings of every committee hearing, which can also be heard live. Recordings of meetings are also podcast.
The most important single way to participate in the lawmaking process, says Gonnelly, is to find out who represents you. "Everybody needs to know who their legislator is," she says. "This is the time to drop an e-mail to your legislator and your senator and say, 'This is my address. I am your constituent, and I will be tuning in; I will be paying attention.' "
Anna Brower, public policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, says that anyone who can't attend meetings on the hill should align themselves with organizations that follow the bills that they're passionate about.
For instance, if keeping up-to-date on legislation about police body cameras is important, people can follow the social media platforms of the group Utah Against Police Brutality.
"I think there are a lot of good points to plug into where people have done a lot of the screening for you on the issues that you may care about," Brower says, noting that another good way to keep tabs on legislators is to follow their Twitter accounts.
But if the issues you care about aren't being addressed by any watchdog groups or organizations, Brower says, by all means, attend the meetings, write to the legislators and speak up. A face-to-face encounter can have great impact, she says, even if it's brief.
"You can go up there and observe at any time," she says. "In terms of having an impact on legislators, it reminds them that there are human beings that they're impacting."
Even for those who make the legislature their business, like Boyack, it is impossible to keep up with everything lawmakers are doing. Boyack recommends that citizens pick a single bill and follow it through the process. Those hoping to keep tabs on individual bills may sign up for e-mail notifications through Le.Utah.gov—then receive an alert every time the bill moves, or progress on it is made.
Citizen Sponsor Program
To aid in this process, the Libertas Institute has organized a citizen-sponsor program. Boyack says participants commit to reading a bill, contacting legislators about the bill and issuing testimony on the bill. Information about becoming a citizen sponsor through Libertas is available at LibertasUtah.org/sponsor. "The biggest thing that needs to be done for more people to get involved in the Legislature is simplification," he says.
In an echo of what Brower says about aligning with an organization, Boyack points people to the Libertas website, where around 80 bills the organization supports—and some it wants to see die—are followed.
Although Boyack, Brower and Gonnelly all advocate on behalf of issues important to their organizations, Boyack says the most important thing, whether you agree with him or not, is to participate.
"When more people are paying attention to a given bill, the likelihood of deceptions, the likelihood of corruption, is severely diminished," he says.
Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka says, along with providing a training day for citizens, which was already held on the session's first day, she invites anyone who wants to tag along with her at the Capitol for a crash course.
"You can come up as a group; you can come up as an individual," she says. "But the important thing is that you come."
Citizen Engagement Events
The National Alliance on Mental Illness and Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Services are hosting a pair of advocacy days (Feb. 10, 9-10 a.m., Copper Room, first floor of East Senate Building; Feb. 23, 10 a.m.-noon, second floor of Capitol Building.
Participants will be taught about citizen-lobbying guidelines and information about the legislative process. Once participants are up to speed, they'll be asked to hunt down their legislators to tell them to support criminal justice and health-care reform. Another fine way to keep up with the Legislature is to follow the news. City Weekly reporters Colby Frazier and Eric S. Peterson will be posting stories throughout the session at CityWeekly.net. Follow @colbyfrazierlp and @ericspeterson on Twitter.
Ten proposed bills that could make (or break) your day.
Even with hundreds of bills already listed for review, and the politicians publicly stating their views, there's no telling what kind of heartache the Utah Legislature will cause during its 45-day session.
But some things are certain: Perennial issues like liquor laws, religious liberty and thumbing the state's collective nose at the federal government will surface. Others, like whether or not those on death row should be executed by firing squad and how police body cameras should be utilized will likely make waves. To give some idea of where lawmakers are headed this year, City Weekly has highlighted 10 proposed bills that could make or break your day.
1. You thought it died in 2003, but the fifififfiiring squad is back
Since 2003, Utah law has made lethal injection the primary method of executing inmates on death row, but that may change if Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, can convince lawmakers to pass House Bill 11 this session. The bill would bring back the firing squad as the primary form of execution if the state could not readily acquire the proper chemical "cocktail" to administer a humane lethal injection. The issue came about in the wake of a botched Oklahoma execution in 2014 where the death of a convicted murderer and rapist took more than 40 minutes after he received an inefficient chemical cocktail in his lethal injection.
Ray argued that there hasn't been an issue with a Utah firing squad execution in over 100 years. "A lot of these guys are dead before they hear a gun," Ray told a legislative committee.
While the bill will likely face little opposition, critics say that bringing back this antiquated method of execution at least will highlight the problems of capital punishment. "If nothing else, bringing the firing squad into the mix reminds people just how barbaric it is," says Anna Brower of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. "If we can't even figure out a humane way to kill people, maybe we just shouldn't be killing people." (Eric S. Peterson)
2. LDS Church breathes life into nondiscrimination bill
A bill to make it illegal to discriminate against LGBT Utahns in housing and the workplace has been shot down time and again since 2008. Things could be changing this year, as two days into the session, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement supporting LGBT rights and religious freedom.
Only days before this announcement, nondiscrimination bill sponsor Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, predicted that without some kind of statement from the church the bill would languish once again.
The LDS Church's support may not be the last word on the bill as the church also strongly weighed in favor of protecting the religious freedom of doctors and others whose beliefs might preclude them from offering services to LGBT Utahns. What is clear, however, is that thanks to the statement from on high, the LGBT nondiscrimination bill will likely have the robust debate in 2015 that it has long been denied. (ESP)
3. The Zion Wall lives on
The bane of many a restaurateur, the Zion Wall is a screen that's required in newer restaurants to hide the preparation of alcoholic beverages from impressionable minors. The concept was defended by former point man on alcohol legislation, Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem.
Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, attempted to abolish the Zion Wall in the 2014 session but was thwarted by Valentine, who ran interference on his bill. But now that Valentine has retired from the Senate, Powell says it's an opportunity to normalize the way restaurants serve alcohol.
Powell plans to take a different approach this year. Rather than abolishing the Zion Wall, his bill would allow restaurant owners to keep it if they like or allow them the option to create a bar area in their restaurant closed off to minors. Adult patrons could sit at or near the bar and be able to watch their drinks poured and prepared.
Powell says the bill would also level the playing field for restaurants since some longtime establishments have been grandfathered in and are not required to build Zion Walls. Powell's bill would require that, over a number of years, all restaurants in the state either create a segregated bar area or have a wall put in place.
"Before, the rallying cry was to take down the wall," Powell says. "But now I think we're saying, 'Let's finds some good policy that works and everyone can be happy about—or that, at least, everyone can live with." (ESP)
4. Criminal-justice reform
While lawmakers have been bracing themselves for the $1 billion price tag associated with relocating the Utah State Prison, others recognize that the big move comes with opportunity for criminal-justice reform. According to research done by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice and the Pew Center, most of any prison's price tag is tied to future prison growth. Further, the research points out that 97 percent of prison growth can be contained over the next two decades if state legislatures embrace a host of criminal justice reforms.
Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, is presenting a package of reforms that would seek new standards, scale back punishments for simple drug possession charges, and fund community treatment centers for those with addictions.
While the bill offers a historic opportunity to reform the system and keep prisons from serving as warehouses for the mentally ill and for nonviolent criminals, Hutchings says the bill is tied directly to relocating the prison. If cities prevail with their NIMBY arguments, and the prison is not relocated, Hutchings told City Weekly that he imagines the political will for reform will disappear. "Sure, lots of talk would occur, but when the discussion of money to implement new programs comes up, it would go belly up and be dead," Hutchings said. (ESP)
5. The right to be a guinea pig
In an attempt to circumvent the red tape of the Food & Drug Administration, a bill proposed by Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, would allow terminally ill patients access to medical devices and drugs that have passed Phase I tests, but not yet received full FDA approval. Because of the time and expense needed for pharmaceuticals to pass through the federal approval process, terminally ill patients who want the treatments may not live long enough to benefit from experimental drugs.
Froerer wants the Utah Right to Try (Life-Saving Treatments) bill, House Bill 94, to allow patients to qualify for alternative treatment if there is no comparable or satisfactory prescription available.
Utah isn't the first state to debate Right to Try legislation; Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan and Missouri have also passed similar laws. And 19 other states are considering similar legislation.
The bill doesn't require insurance companies to cover the cost of treating or administering, but it also doesn't prohibit insurance companies from doing so. The text also does not compel manufacturers to supply the device or drug. The manufacturers can legally decline to make the treatment available to patients.
Those opposed to the legislation say that while untested drugs and devices could provide benefits, they could also cause unknown harm since they haven't been fully tested. (Tiffany Frandsen)
6. You say "I do"; I say, "I won't"
Rep. Jacob L. Anderegg, R-Lehi, proposed a bill (House Bill 66) that would give those empowered to perform marriages in Utah the right to bow out if performing the marriage goes against their religious beliefs.
Under state and federal law, religious officials already have this protection. Critics of Anderegg's bill say the protection would extend not only to religious leaders but also to public officials, like the governor, county clerks and judges. "It's opening the door for religious refusal by people who are employed by the government to serve all members of the public," said Anna Brower, public-policy advocate at the ACLU of Utah. "We think there are serious constitutional issues with it."
Anderegg declined to comment on the specifics of his bill, but said he was in the process of rewriting it. (TF)
7. Smile: You're on Cop Camera
A year ago, body camera-wearing police were a novelty across the country, garnering news coverage in a few states where large sums of money had been plunked down for the emerging technology.
Now, in the wake of fatal police shootings that have captured the nation's attention, police departments and politicians are going all-in on devices they say will help clarify how and why police officers use deadly force.
But as with all technological advances, the rush to adopt often outpaces the logic behind using a new technology. Rep. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, plans to introduce a bill that would clarify how body cameras should be used while protecting the constitutional rights of citizens and the police officers. In addition to addressing constitutional questions regarding search and seizure, McCay says the bill, the details for which are still being ironed out, would address questions about whether an officer must disclose when he or she is recording and how the data captured by the cameras is stored, how long it should be kept and who can access it. (Colby Frazier)
8. Constitutional showdown
The state of Utah sends its two senators and four congressional representatives to Washington, D.C., to advocate on behalf of the state's wants and needs. But when these voices simply aren't enough to stop the federal government from handing down a regulation or law state leaders are opposed to, what then?
There is one avenue not currently in play that Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, hopes to put on the table: forming a constitutional convention, where states could band together and amend the U.S. Constitution to allow states to countermand orders from the feds.
"The federal government's too big," Nelson says. "States have no check on the growth of the federal government." Nelson says a dozen other states are considering adopting a similar resolution to his House Joint Resolution 3 that would ask Congress to call a constitutional convention of the states. If 34 states green-light such a measure, Nelson says, Congress must do so.
Nelson's efforts, though, will face opposition. Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative Eagle Forum, says she questions why anyone would think that amending the U.S. Constitution is a way to get Congress to start following the Constitution.
Ruzicka says we should "stick with the Constitution we have." (CF)
9. Elephants at war
First, a little background: In response to a citizen petition called Count My Vote, lawmakers in 2014 considered legislation that would require political parties have open primaries instead of continuing with the old-fashioned but still popular caucus and convention system.
Lawmakers came up with a compromise bill in order to halt the citizen petition. Senate Bill 54 kept the caucus/convention system in place but also allowed candidates to bypass the system by gathering signatures for a spot on the primary ballot.
After the passage of SB54, the State GOP filed a legal challenge in federal court about whether the state can tell a private organization how to pick candidates running for office.
In this legislative session, Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, aims to spare his party the pain of litigation. He has put forth his own ballot initiative, Senate Joint Resolution 2, which would amend the Utah Constitution to explicitly state that it is the right of a political party to establish the process of selecting candidates—a right that "may not be infringed."
Jenkins, who was one of only seven senators to vote against the 2014 compromise, says the Count My Vote effort, and the subsequent compromise, was little more than an effort to boss around political parties.
"In the end, what they were trying to do was take the parties hostage," Jenkins says. "I'm making it from the other side. Political parties' rights should not be infringed upon, period. It's just that simple." (CF)
10. Taxes sure to have Utahns fuming
With dominating Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, talk of tax hikes is as rare as seeing an Obama button on Capitol Hill. This year could be different. Although Gov. Gary Herbert didn't propose raising the gas tax in his budget, he has said he would consider raising the tax—an idea that might surface during the session.
A potentially larger tax hike could come in the form of House Bill 54, a 1-percent hike on income taxes introduced by Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan. If passed, Utah's income tax would rise to 6 percent, a jump that legislative analysts say would generate $176.2 million in new money in 2016 and $726.4 million in 2017. Draxler's bill would direct this cash to education programs. Another potential tax increase could land on the increasing number of people who get their nicotine fix from electronic cigarettes. Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, is working on legislation titled "regulation and taxation of e. cigarettes." The governor's budget, too, has targeted these products, predicting it will raise $10 million in taxes on e-cigarettes. (CF)
The Long Arm of the LDS Church
A year ago, Sen. Stephen Urquhart's LGBT nondiscrimination bill couldn't even muster enough support to undergo a vote.
Frankly, not much has changed in 2015: The Wasatch Front still has bouts of filthy air, children are shielded from viewing the mixing of alcoholic beverages, and state lawmakers are still clawing to ensure that the caucus nominating system that oftentimes ensures friction-free re-election campaigns remain in place.
Nevertheless, on Jan. 27, Urquhart, his bill and the LGBT community got a big fat endorsement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While the church's statement in favor of laws protecting the rights of LGBT Utahns was greeted favorably by the state's Democratic politicians, it could also serve as a compelling yardstick to measure the actual influence a single news conference from church brass has over the actions of Utah's elected leaders.
A week before the church's news conference, Urquhart said Senate Bill 100, which would protect LGBT citizens against housing and workplace discrimination and has been shot down off and on since 2008, rested with the LDS Church.
"I think the fate of this bill is in the hands of the Mormon Church," Urquhart said. "If they do nothing, that silence will kill it because there are members [of the Legislature] that think they are supporting their God by not ending discrimination against LGBT individuals."
Insuring Utah's neediest is an issue some Utah lawmakers want to sweep under the rug.
At his 2014 State of the State address, Gov. Gary Herbert dedicated a couple of paragraphs to the uninsured Utahns who didn't qualify for coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act. Among other statements, Herbert told Utahns that "assisting the poor in our state is a moral obligation that must be addressed."
But in 2015, and after forfeiting $800 million dollars in federal funding, Utah still hasn't taken action to offer health insurance to more than 100,000 of the state's neediest souls.
To be fair, Herbert has done some leg work. He and his aides spent a fair part of 2014 in Washington, D.C., where they haggled with the Obama Administration about how best to expand medical coverage in the Beehive State, as long as it was done the "Utah way."
The Utah way, Herbert maintains, is a system that differs from the ACA's outright Medicaid expansion (an option that could have been adopted a year ago and that would have brought hundreds of millions of dollars back to Utah). The governor's Healthy Utah Plan requires recipients to pay part of their premium as well as pay increased co-payments. In addition, those who use the emergency room for non-emergency issues will be charged for it. Finally, the governor's plan requires that some recipients be working or looking for work.
When the dickering over these particulars was done, Herbert announced that he had won a majority of concessions he had sought from Washington. But alas, Herbert's plan turned out to be unpalatable to the Utah Legislature's Health Reform Task Force, led by Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, and Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, which swatted the Healthy Utah Plan to the mat.
Many lawmakers oppose Herbert's plan because, as with Medicaid expansion, the state would accept federal cash to expand social programs some deem unsustainable. Another problem cited by those opposed to the plan are the costs to Utah, which over time, would have to fund up to 10 percent of the price tag.
Without the recommendation from the taskforce, the fate of the Healthy Utah Plan is unknown, though many people, including Herbert, hope that it rears its head one way or another during the session.
The governor, says Marty Carpenter, a spokesman for Herbert, remains "optimistic and still hopeful that we can come to some kind of agreement to have a plan in place by the end of the session."
In place of the Healthy Utah Plan, the task force recommended a pair of different options to be put before the Legislature. One would insure roughly 10,300 of the state's most frail citizens, while the other would insure 15,900 of these people.
Meanwhile, the Healthy Utah Plan, which was crafted as a way to avoid expanding the state's Medicaid rolls, would provide insurance to 146,000 people.
At the heart of the debate is whether or not the state can afford to provide this type of care. If Utah approved Herbert's plan, it would cost around $18.7 million in 2017, Carpenter says. Although this is a lot of millions, the kicker is that if the state agreed to put a program in place that would sufficiently insure the most vulnerable citizens and get a nod from the federal government, Utahns could sit back and watch $502 million of their tax money flow back to the state to cover the bulk of the costs.
By doing nothing, Utah has so far forfeited this cash—an amount that RyLee Curtis, senior policy analyst at the Utah Health Policy Project, says hovers around $800,000 per day.
This evaporating money, Carpenter says, weighs heavy on Herbert. And he notes that the hundreds of millions of dollars that Utah has so far cast aside are being used by other states to fund their health-care programs.
"[Herbert] just doesn't agree with the idea of paying for something that we're not going to get any benefit for," Carpenter says.
The inability to convince a majority of the taskforce to move the Healthy Utah Plan forward, says Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, who was a member of the Health Reform Task Force, shows how steeped the debate over insuring poor people is in ideology rather than straight economics.
Davis says if Utah were to simply expand Medicaid as it could have done and can still do under the Affordable Care Act (Davis has sponsored a bill, Senate Bill 83, which aims to do just this), the state would only be on the hook for 10 percent of the costs. Although this would be tens of millions of dollars, the bulk would be covered by taxes Utahns are already paying for the program. When explaining this scenario, Davis asks the question: Would you pay 10 cents if you could get 90 cents back?
The brick wall that Davis and those who support providing health insurance to low-income residents run into, then, is the swell of anti-federal government rhetoric that has enraptured Utah politics for the past several years. "It's not financial, it's not economical," Davis says of the debate surrounding health care. "Right now, the debate is all ideological. It's the idea that this is the federal government trying to take everything over."
Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, says she hopes to see something akin to the Healthy Utah Plan appear at the Legislature, but for now, she says she is "perplexed by the logic, or lack thereof, of the political paralysis that prevent us from taking care of our own."
In her years on Capitol Hill, Chavez-Houck says she doesn't recall ever seeing so much angst about spending the sum of money that would be required to take care of these Utahns. Until lawmakers can reach a consensus, Chavez-Houck says Utahns lacking insurance will "get sicker and people will die because we are stuck and we can't make a decision, and to me, it continues to be more of a political statement being made versus one that's made in the best interest of uninsured Utahns."
Though no one knows for certain what form the Healthy Utah Plan could take during the session, for those in need of health care today, there is the far-flung hope that Davis' proposal to simply expand Medicaid coverage to the uninsured could pass.
Chavez-Houck doubts it, saying such an about-face from her Republican colleagues would represent an "alternative reality."
Medicaid expansion, she says, would mean "me and the hundred-plus thousand Utahns waking up from this nightmare and realizing that their government cares about them."