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Legislature Madness

The Sweet Bills That Make Life Bitter.

by , and


Every January, the parade of hope marches north on State Street. The tiny valley people with cheerful faces trudge past Temple Square and chug up the steep slope to the Capitol, by bicycle and by foot, holding colorful posters and singing, like Whoville Whos on Christmas morning, for clean air, well-funded schools, quality health care and fairness for all. One could be forgiven for thinking the Grinch—perhaps perched on Ensign Peak overlooking Salt Lake Valley from the north—is readying his dangerously overpacked sleigh for delivery of every Utah hope and dream.

The following week, a different procession arrives: the small, pink men in big, black suits. They sit down at desks furnished with MacBooks and cups of Diet Coke. They pray, they say the Pledge of Allegiance, and then they honor the most notable and most recent dead people with a moment of silence.

Then, the Grinch enters the chamber, formally receives the attention of the small, pink men in big, black suits, and sings.

He sings a dreary, methodical anthem that's strangely familiar, as if the Whovillean carols from the previous week were deconstructed and put back together by a team of humorless North Korean information officers:

Utah, O glorious Utah!

Best state in America Land!

Please stay same forever.

Federal nuisance, cease aggression!

At the end of his well-rehearsed paean, all the small, pink men in big, black suits stand and applaud, moved by either accord or by habit.

By this point, it is revealed that Utah is two places, not one. At once, it is both a place of untainted optimism and immovable doctrine, an alluring yet daunting blend of freshwater creeks and jagged mountains. The creek water that trickles down from the cliffs—so cool and refreshing to those Whoville Whos drawing from it—packages mineral traces of vast valleys of opportunity from beyond those foreboding mountains that stubbornly define their boundaries. But the Whos dream not of venturing out to those unseen valleys; rather, they dream of days when the trickle becomes a free-flow. And so, either admirably or naively, they stay with the mountains.

Bitterness inevitably accumulates under the chilly Wasatch shadow. To those taken by shivers, I present an uncomplicated explanation for all of the bewildering eccentricities—the puissant mountains, the putrid melodies, the pink men, the stingy Grinch. There's one simple, incontrovertible fact that places Utah politics squarely in the realm of the comprehendible, if only you hold it up to the inversion-diffused sunlight: Utah's state rock is coal.

Two Sizes Too Small
In 2015, Utah's general legislative session saw an attempt to designate the golden retriever as the state's official "domestic animal." The idea sprouted from the most innocuous of places: a fourth-grade class at Daybreak Elementary School in South Jordan. Their state senator, Republican Aaron Osmond, took the bill to the Legislature, hailing it as "a fun project to partner with these kids to teach them about the legislative process" in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Alli Despain, the students' teacher, hoped that proposing this bill would pique the students' interest in politics.

"Maybe one of them will be a senator someday," she mused at the time.

The first test for Senate Bill 53 was in front of the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee, which is exactly the kind of intimidatingly jargony place you'd send a child's dream to die. And the bill nearly did die—after hearing from Osmond, Despain and a small contingency of golden retriever super-fans (with Despain's students bearing witness), the canine death panel narrowly approved the bill by a 2-1 vote, with three other committee members marked as "not present."

On the floor of the Senate, SB 53 faced further scrutiny. Without getting too technical about the intricacies of parliamentary rules, the bill had to pass two votes in the full Senate after the committee hearing, with the first being essentially a vote to decide whether or not to vote for real. It's the legislative equivalent to, "Let's talk more tomorrow."

The first vote (the vote to vote) was close. Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, explained that he preferred cocker spaniels. Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, voted "no" because he breeds German shepherds. Altogether, the Senate voted 15-9 for golden retrievers to live another day.

The very next day, in fact, the Senate had their for-real-this-time vote. Hillyard, acknowledging the flack he got for his unabashed cocker spaniel endorsement, clarified that he was voting "no" mostly because he felt the bill was a waste of time—perhaps justifiably so.

Regardless, SB 53 passed by a vote of 15-12. Surely, a never-ending pizza party ensued in Mrs. Despain's class, as even the meekest Cindy-Lou Who sat quietly at her desk and daydreamed about one day becoming a senator.

If you're cheering for our intrepid youngsters of South Jordan right now, here's the point when "bicameral" becomes a dirty word.

It took 16 days for the Utah House of Representatives to get around to talking about the Senate-approved golden retriever bill; they waited until Day 45, the very last day of the general session. Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, the House sponsor for SB 53, delivered a serviceable defense of the bill amid snickers and faux dog barks. But Daw perhaps was outdone by a thoughtful—nay, enlightened—speech from his Republican colleague from Lehi. Jake Anderegg implored his fellow state representatives to think not of dogs, but of the children.

"This came from a fourth-grade class that was being taught about our form of government. And their teacher said, 'Let's put it to the test,'" Anderegg explained.

He continued, "Now, we talk a lot about people not being engaged in the process. This is the epitome for why we would want them to be engaged. Not because of the golden retriever but because it teaches them this process."

There's a common understanding among the small, pink men in big, black suits that the public's engagement in their "process" is less than zealous. Anderegg reminded his peers of this, and presented SB 53 as a small token of redemption.

Alas, as they are wont to do, Utah's pink men took a casual pass on redemption. SB 53 was soundly defeated by a 27-43 vote, permanently sending golden retrievers to a farm upstate.

I was sitting in the House gallery when the vote came down. As an occasional legislative reporter and frequent observer, neither the final tally nor the dearth of compassion in the room should have surprised me. I have witnessed literal life-or-death bills dismissed with similar apathy. No one's life hinges on a state dog bill, but it was never about golden retrievers. It was about making sure that the first time a group of 10-year-olds asks lawmakers to pay attention, they don't bark back at them like derisive hyenas. Call it a waste of time if you must, but don't forget that someone else spent a hell of a lot more time thinking about, reading about, talking about and caring about Utah's favorite dog than the Legislature ever had to.

House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan sang the well-rehearsed, dreary, waste-of-time anthem in SB 53's obituary in the Tribune.

"We have significant issues that need to take a lot of our time and brainpower," Dunnigan said. "Maybe someone could ask themselves if there is anything more important than trying to come up with the state animal."

According to Title 63G, Chapter 1, Part 6, Section 601 in Utah Code, in the section titled "State Symbols," there are 27 items more important than the state domestic animal. Below are a few of the items Utah lawmakers have devoted time and brainpower to designating a higher importance than golden retrievers:

Utah's state cooking pot is the Dutch oven.

Utah's state firearm is the John M. Browning-designed M1911 automatic pistol.

Utah's state vegetable is the Spanish sweet onion.

Utah's historic state vegetable is the sugar beet.

Utah's state folk dance is the square dance.

Utah's state mineral is copper.

Utah's state rock is coal.


A Wonderful, Awful Idea
Coal is a dirty black rock made of old dead things buried in the ground. We dig it up and burn it to stay warm, and it makes the air dirty. It's a necessary evil—increasingly more evil than necessary. If you're a child of unfortunate circumstance, you'll find a lump of it in your stocking on Christmas morning. Coal is the object that replaces hopes and dreams. It's a near-universal symbol of disappointment. And it's the state rock of Utah.

This is helpful to remember, because it rather succinctly explains the frustration and ennui associated with northbound glances toward the end of State Street. Utah is a place made of rocks, in overwhelming varieties of shape, size, color and composition. The whole state is an exhibition of breathtaking sculpture unlike anywhere else on Earth. Impossible sandstone columns and arches of brilliant, tawny orange punctuate the desert vistas of the south. Dramatic, brutish cliffs and peaks of granite, quartzite and limestone pierce the sky in the north. To the west, a mind-melting, flat expanse of pure salt.

And somewhere in the east, buried under everything, is coal.

Of course the state rock is coal. The state's Capitol building might be composed of granite facades and marble floors, but a closer inspection reveals a mile-deep foundation of copper and coal. In the large waiting room outside the governor's office, the largest, most prominent painting is an epic depiction of the Bingham Canyon Mine—one of the biggest open-pit mines in the world. On a clear day, you can see the gaping man-made hole from anywhere in Salt Lake Valley.

For hundreds of hours I've observed those small, pink men in big, black suits bloviate over what's important and what's merely a waste of their time, but I am yet to discover their method of discernment. Golden retrievers are a waste of time, but a lump of coal demands permanent enshrinement in Utah Code? No straight line could ever connect those two dots without defying the laws of reason. So I sardonically revert to this simple fact and apply it as though it's a pure principle of truth: Utah's state rock is coal.

Until recently, I never contemplated the origin of that fact. I had imagined a turn-of-the-century coal baron in a towering top hat cornering a small, pink man in a big, black suit, rumbling to him with feigned incredulousness, "You know what's quite a crying shame? Utah has no state rock! Can you believe it? A gross impropriety, I say!" Thus, the state rock was born.

As wholly believable as that scenario is, it deviates slightly from the real-life story. Just like the state domestic animal bill, the state rock bill purports to originate in one of Utah's thriving state policy incubators: a public school.

In 1991, the children of Castle Valley Center—a school for students with special needs—pitched the idea of making coal the state rock to Rep. Mike Dmitrich, a Democrat from Price. But if you read between the lines—and it doesn't take much time or brainpower in this case—it's pretty obvious that Dmitrich was the true driving force behind the initiative.

In an interview conducted last year for the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, Dmitrich revealed a deeply personal bond to Utah's coal industry.

"My whole family was coal miners," he told the interviewer. "My dad was actually killed in the Kaiser Steel coal mine. My grandpa got killed in the Bingham copper mine just before I was born. When my dad got killed, I was working on the opposite shift at Kaiser at the time. My father-in-law was a state mine inspector and I have eight uncles, and six of them worked in the mining industry; some started when they were 14 years old."

As a young man, Dmitrich got into college on a football scholarship. After aggravating a shoulder injury, he dropped out of school and, perhaps on instinct, went to work in a coal mine. Dmitrich quit mining after the untimely death of his father, choosing instead to pursue a less hazardous career path: banking. But loyalty to his mining heritage never faded.

Dmitrich was first elected to the Utah House in 1968 when his state senator, Omar Bunnell, encouraged him to run for an open seat. Altogether, he served in the Utah Legislature for four decades. The pro-union Democrat said the coal miners' union "really, basically, kept me in office for a long time."

In 1977, the federal government created the Office of Surface Mining, in part to regulate the mining industry. That's right around the time when Dmitrich decided he was done being a banker.

"I told the mine superintendent of Plateau Mining in Wattis, Utah, 'I think you ought to have someone really track this because it's going to impact the mining industry a lot.' I was in the Legislature at the time, and we talked about it a little bit, so he says, 'Apparently you have someone in mind?' and I said, 'Yeah, me.' So he hired me as a kind of government affairs representative and I worked there for something like 30 years."

Mike Dmitrich, son of a coal miner and raised in Carbon County, was hired as a lobbyist for a coal company—while serving as an elected representative for a coal-mining district in the Utah Legislature.

Flash forward to 1991. The students of Castle Valley Center, apparently clamoring for Utah to recognize coal as the official state rock, compelled Rep. Dmitrich to submit House Bill 95. Dmitrich expediently brought the bill to committee, where it easily earned a favorable recommendation. On just the fourth day of the 45-day general session, Dmitrich presented HB 95 to the full House for a vote.

"I didn't know coal was a rock until this year," Dmitrich said on the House floor without even the slightest hint of irony. He then precisely noted the technical difference between a rock and a mineral. Why? Because the two cash rocks of Utah are coal and copper. Conveniently, copper is a mineral, while coal, by definition, is not. So Dmitrich was somewhat ingeniously laying the groundwork for copper to become the state's official mineral—and it did, three years later in 1994. Here's the best part: Who supposedly lobbied for copper's designation as state mineral? None other than the budding young copper enthusiasts of Castle Valley Center.

As an aside, Kentucky's state mineral is—you guessed it—coal. Their state rock is Kentucky agate.

By a 61-8 vote, Dmitrich's HB 95 sailed through the House. After the vote, Dmitrich shamelessly invited all of his colleagues to tour a coal mine sometime—save for the eight who voted against his bill.

On Day 39 of the general session, Dmitrich's old friend Omar Bunnell helped HB 95 through the Senate with a 22-2 vote. Gov. Norm Bangerter went on to sign the bill into law.

Bunnell retired the next year, allowing Dmitrich to take his seat in the Senate. Dmitrich himself retired from the Legislature in 2008—as a lawmaker, that is. He worked as a lobbyist full-time the very next session.

And that's why our state rock is coal.

Without Any Presents at All
I've thought a lot about Mrs. Despain's fourth-grade Whos since last year. I've wondered how they reacted to the news that golden retrievers were a waste of time. Were they upset? Did they decide to give up on politics? Did they care at all?

"They were kinda bummed."

I talked to Alli Despain in March of 2016, almost exactly one year after the Utah Legislature nixed her students' state domestic animal bill.

"I heard the previous year that another fourth-grade class had changed the state tree, and they had a lot of really good reasons," she told me over the phone. "And I told my kids that, and I was like, 'You guys, maybe we can do something similar to that.'"

Despain and her students really did work pretty hard on their bill. Their assignments included researching other state symbols, researching and writing about potential state domestic animals, and finding out everything they could about golden retrievers and the political process. Despain printed out a generic bill template from the internet and crafted a makeshift piece of legislation based on her students' discussion. She then handed it off to Sen. Osmond, who happily agreed to sponsor the bill.

"They came up with all of the ideas," Despain said. "I only facilitated and typed it in, but really they wrote the entire bill."

With their teacher's humble guidance and enthusiastic support, more than 40 kids contributed to the cause. They spent about a year altogether on it—from the moment Despain got the idea to submit a new state symbol, until the last day of the 2015 general session when the bill was defeated.

Despain admitted that some of her kids were disappointed with the result, but they felt far from dejected.

"They just felt really big. They felt like they could do something, even though they were 9- and 10-year-olds. They felt like, 'Oh my gosh, if we as a class can present a bill and have it go this high in the government, have it go to the Capitol'—they felt like they could do that later in life, easily."

I asked Despain what she personally gained from the experience. She said that she, too, feels like she's learned the value of her voice. She even planned to attend Utah's caucuses with her husband.

"I kinda always wanted to do those things, but ... I don't speak well. I don't feel like I write very well. I really didn't feel like I could make that much of a difference as an individual," she said. "I really feel like it gave me confidence to feel like I could make a difference."

Utah is two places, not one.

It's a Who place, then a place less fun.

It's a home for hope to girls and boys.

But then, to pink men, it's all noise, noise, NOISE!

Maybe their suits are too big, or their hearts too small—

or it could be their aversion to alcohol.

But the likeliest reason that I can cajole

is that Utah's state rock is coal.

But Whos, take solace in this truthful fact:

Even the tiniest voice can still have an impact.

Someone will hear you. Someone will know.

Someday, that little trickle will be a free-flow.

Ryan Cunningham is a Salt Lake City-based writer and public radio producer. A version of this story was previously published on medium.com.