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News » Cover Story

Utah Legislature 2011: Reloaded

Utah lawmakers take their best shots at 2011’s big issues.



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Booze & Spice And Everything Not Nice
Utah is a business-friendly place, where market forces rule and regulations equal socialism—unless it’s the booze business.


Top Legislative Tweets
Highlights from the 2011 Legislature in 140 characters or fewer

@Ben McAdams: “I’m baffled why my resolution asking for heightened federal regulation of state government hasn’t passed. #utpol #utleg” Feb. 18

@RobertGehrke: “And the vote is 28—0. We live in a republic. Final vote tomorrow. It has restored my faith in democracy. We should totally get one.” March 2

@JoshLoftin: “BREAKING GIGANTIC SURPRISE: #HB477 Passes Senate. Media balls, meet legislative foot. #utleg #utpol #MyDaddyisUTLEG” March 4

@Sausagegrinder: “I like to imagine a tiny Quasimodo rings the House bell in a.m. Then I imagine tossing him off the Dome after 7 straight minutes of it.” Feb. 8

@MaxRoth: “HB477 passes. UT Leg took 4 days for sneak attack on freedom of press. That means they have time for religion or assembly next week!” March 4

@UTferalcat: “The Feral Cat Caucus would like to honor Catrick Henry, the father of the feral revolution #utpol” March 9

@RobertGehrke: “Operation Wimmerstache Update: I had a donut for breakfast today. Something about flakes of icing help a ’stache look lush and full. #utleg” March 8

@RepBriscoe: “Feral legislation-no committee hearing, unveiled afternoon of the last day. #utpol #utleg” March 10

The state-owned liquor monopoly brings more than $50 million to state coffers annually but doesn’t get a percentage of those profits. Instead, the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control is budgeted money like any other government department. This year, due to budget cuts, legislators slated the closure of as many as 13 stores and the firing of 150 employees.

These same budget cuts also will mean restricted hours, meaning some liquor stores will close as early as 7 p.m.

A plus for the Utah hotel industry was a change in liquor laws that allowed hotels to serve a single alcoholic beverage to guests. Existing law only allowed for bottle service. Now, hotel guests who want to awaken by drinking a single breakfast screwdriver don’t have to order a full bottle of vodka. Good morning!

In other booze news, Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, passed a liquor bill to increase the number of liquor licenses for restaurants—but not club licenses. The new law, however, normalized service hours for restaurants, giving some good news to the brunch crowd, since all restaurants can serve alcohol starting at 11:30 a.m. instead of noon.

A last-minute addition to the Senate bill after it had already cleared a public hearing was a one-word change that gathered no mention in debates. It prohibits bars from offering daily beer specials. The reason? To prevent overconsumption. This bill goes into effect July 1, when it will be adios to cheap-draft nights and PBR can specials. For now, it seems cocktail specials are still OK.

Everyone’s favorite synthetic cannabinoid (fake pot) was banned in Utah faster than a spice buzz wears off on a full stomach. The bill outlawing spice and Ivory Wave—a bath salt said to cause a cocaine-like high if snorted—was among the first signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert this session.

While bill proponents—who were thinking of the children—had no trouble garnering support, they failed to factor in the price tag of $350,000 which the state labs would need to buy the equipment needed to test for spice compounds.

3 Barely Legal Highs Likely to Be Outlawed in 2012 Session
1. Chewing Kratom: Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, eager to jump on the banning-designer-drugs bandwagon, proposed legislation this session to ban kratom. If you’ve never heard of kratom, clearly you’re not from Thailand or Malaysia, where the substance has been used for centuries. While kratom has a chemical structure similar to psychedelic drugs, the effects are not the same. Herrod pulled the bill when it was recommended that it be first studied by the Controlled Substance Advisory Board to see if it required legal prohibition. Concentrated doses are said to have a possible opiate-like effect. But the major effects of chewing low doses of kratom leaves appear to be an antioxidant boost, enhanced energy and a mild sense of well being. This leads us to believe it will either be outlawed by the 2012 Legislature or will be offered as nutritional supplement through a local multilevel-marketing company, in which case it will enjoy the fullest federal protection possible and receive product testimonials from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

2. Smoking Nutmeg: Thanks to a hard-hitting November KSL exposé, Utahns recently discovered that the youth are now smoking nutmeg! Won’t someone think of the children—besides KSL and the Utah Legislature, that is? Hopefully not, or coming regulations will severely restrict Utahns’ funnel-cake-baking freedoms.

3. Making Yourself Pass Out: Reports are trickling in that children lacking access to real drugs are forcing themselves to pass out. It would be irresponsible for City Weekly to divulge specific methods for this altered state, but one form involves a series of deep breaths followed by a bear hug from another individual. The other involves locking one’s knees for a certain length of time to halt blood flow.

Happiness Is A Warm Gun
House Bill 210, lovingly known as the feral cat bill, sponsored by Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, would have allowed exemptions from animal cruelty laws for those who shoot a cat they reasonably suspect is feral. The bill was amended to prohibit anti-stray vigilantism in urban settings and seemed likely to pass until it was “neutered” the final day and failed to pass.

Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, succeeded in making the Browning M911 a state symbol, citing John Browning, the gun’s inventor, as a Utah native. While the bill grabbed national headlines, the designation loses novelty, considering Utah already has a ton of “official” designations, for example: a state folk dance (square dance), a state cooking pot (Dutch oven), and both a state vegetable (Spanish sweet onion) and a historic state vegetable (Sugar beet).


Top 3 Reasons Liberals Should Miss Chris Buttars
The crusty Republican homophobe senator from West Jordan retired at the conclusion of this session. Here’s three reasons progressives shouldn’t be so happy to see him go.

1. Buttars sponsored the 2005 Drug Offender Reform Act pilot program. This rather progressive piece of legislation is aimed at linking drug offenders with existing treatment options instead of just cycling them through jail and prison.“A lot of people think we should get tough on crime,” Buttars told City Weekly in 2007. “I think we need to get smart on crime first.”

2. He was the only conservative to challenge his party on HB477, the controversial bill designed to gut Utah’s two-decade-old open-government records law. Buttars admitted he hadn’t read the bill and chastised his fellow lawmakers—Republicans and Democrats—for rushing to pass a bill more than 1,800 lines long.

3. He was the only senator—Republican or Democrat—to vote against Sen. John Valentine’s liquor bill. He even criticized the need for a liquor-license quota system as “legislative creep.”

The Biggest Little Government In The World
Government Right to Privacy—Even on Public Business
House Bill 477 sought to undo a 20-year-old open-government records law in the space of 72 hours—and succeeded. The bill received no support in public comment and was admittedly passed quickly to avoid media objections. It carved out large exceptions for the Legislature to operate in secret. The bill also sought to take out existing language in Utah’s legal code that guides courts and government to disclose records when it benefits the public’s right to know, and sought to rule out text messages as even being considered a public record—even if they’re sent by public officials, on taxpayer-funded phones, to other public officials, about public business.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, criticized the media for distorting issues affecting them by claiming “the sky is falling.” He argued the bill’s process was fair and equitable … and then he suspended normal rules for debate and helped whoosh the bill out the door. Two days later, and after hundreds of angry calls to Gov. Herbert and the Legislature, the bill was recalled and implementation was delayed until July 1, so that a working group can study possible changes to the bill in a special session of the Legislature planned for June.

Senate Bill 44, which grabbed less notice than HB477, would give the Legislature (more specifically, the dominant party) more control over independent expert commissions like the Tax Review Commission and the Constitutional Review Commission. Sponsored by Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, the bill would make these volunteer commissions, which currently meet year-round, only meet when called by the Legislature, governor or the Legislative Management Committee.

During house debate, multiple legislators supporting the bill argued that they didn’t know exactly how some Constitutional Review Commission members viewed the Constitution—basically arguing that the commission might include legal experts who see the Constitution as a “living” document, contrary to most Republicans’ view.

Additionally, the Tax Review Commission, which is staffed largely with nonpartisan volunteer tax accountants and other experts, is charged with reviewing state sales and use taxes as well as numerous economic development tax credits. Those tasks would be put in the hands of the Legislature’s Tax & Revenue Committee. That which was billed as a cost-cutting measure simply cuts out checks and balances, critics say.

Senate Bill 165 emerged as a direct pushback from the Legislature against recent citizen ballot initiatives designed to force ethics reforms on lawmakers. SB165 would not only invalidate the use of electronic signatures for ballot petitions, but also raises the standard needed to get a petition on the ballot. Of course, that’s what citizen activists get when they try to petition a bull by the horns.