Utah Legislative Session 2015 | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly
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News » Cover Story

Utah Legislative Session 2015

How to get lawmakers to listen to you—not just lobbyists

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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."