2014 Legislative Preview: Utah Twilight Zone 

If City Weekly readers were legislators, things would be a lot different here

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You unlock this door with the key of the imagination of a City Weekly reader. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension where alcohol flows freely, a dimension where church and state are separate, a dimension of liberal mind. You’re moving into a new Utah political landscape, a landscape of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into ... the Utah Twilight Zone.

Can you picture it, this topsy-turvy world? If not, then let us paint a picture for you based on a collection of suggested laws submitted by City Weekly readers. If the current mantra of Utah politics is “Get your hands off my guns and the feds off my lawn!” the City Weekly-created Utah Twilight Zone mantra is more like, “Get your paws off my booze and your church out of my guv’ment!”

But if the reality of Utah politics is already hard enough to wrap your brain around, don’t worry—we’ve also got you covered for what’s actually in store for the 2014 session. We’ve recapped some of the top issues that are percolating for this session, from the ethics bills designed to clean the stain of Swallow from the state’s reputation to the bills that hope to de-gunk the air. We’ll also look at the now-uphill battle for nondiscrimination protections for LGBT Utahns and will hit the books with key education bills.

So prepare yourself for a journey between two worlds as we look at the twisted Utah of our readers’ imagining and the regular twisted Legislature that will soon be in session, passing the bills that will govern your life.

Reader-Submitted Laws: From the Practical to the Practically Insane

Pinhead Police

“It would be legal to issue civilian citations for stupidity.” —submitted on Facebook

How It Would Work
This would be a game changer—especially if funds from stupidity citations were directed to the state general education fund. The “Fool Fine” would make Utah’s bottom-of-the-barrel per-pupil spending status skyrocket for at least a generation—till the better-educated generation comes of age and revenues from the Fool Fine decline.

On the downside, civilian-issued stupidity citations would give rise to a whole new court system and class of attorneys hired to prove what is or isn’t legitimately stupid. Court battles could be highly contentious, especially in settling drunken arguments like determining who would win a fight between a pirate and a ninja.

Outta the Booze Biz

“End the state’s monopoly in the liquor business.” —submitted on Facebook

“I am going to be a rugged Ayn Rand individualist ideologue for a moment. I have approached both my District 52 representative, John Knotwell, R-Herriman, and my state senator, Aaron Osmond, R-West Jordan, and neither want to back my radical notion. It is so radical that I am sure it won’t even get a sniff test this legislative session. Not only tear down that Zion curtain, but repeal and replace the DABC, with the free markets deciding which stores can sell alcohol just like Arizona, Idaho or Nevada. Yes, we need education money—lotteries can provide that, but only one radical notion at a time.” —submitted via e-mail

How It Would Work
People could order wine at a restaurant without first being interrogated about what they’ll eat, the free market—instead of a math formula—would dictate the number of bars and where they thrive, and liquor stores would be able to keep their beer cold.

Sheer bedlam.

De-legislating

“A bill that states that lawmakers must repeal at least one existing nonsensical/outdated law on the books per year or at least provide evidential proof that they spent at least 50 hours looking for one.” —submitted on Facebook

How It Would Work
Snark aside, there is actually a precedent for this. In 1996, Rep. Melvin Brown, R-Coalville, helped direct the Office of Legislative Research to dig up all the outdated laws on the books. Surprisingly, the office dug up only 14 outdated laws.

“I was surprised; I thought we’d have maybe 50 or 60 but it didn’t turn out that way,” Brown says. Brown doesn’t think there’s been a similar purge since and says the books might be due for another cleanup. He points out that the reason there isn’t a surplus of obsolete laws is simply because most of the work lawmakers do isn’t writing new laws, but rewriting existing laws.

“We pass between 400 and 500 pieces of legislation every year, but very, very few of those are new sections of the code,” Brown says. “They’re just going back and reworking code to meet the different needs and circumstances that the public’s dictated.”

Lobbyist Restraining Orders

“Let’s pass a law that state legislators serve for no salary and stay at least 200 yards away from lobbyists. That way, maybe after 20 years, we might begin to believe we have one honest politician in Utah.” —submitted on Facebook

How It Would Work
Either we’d root out corruption, or lobbyists would simply lose their personal touch and start sending Snapchat photos of bags of money to lawmakers and replacing sit-down power lunches with mailed Krispy Kreme gift cards.

Don’t Gas Kitty

“Ban gas chambers as a method of euthanasia in animal shelters. It’s inhumane and there’s no reason to use this outdated method.” —submitted on Facebook

How It Would Work
This turns out to be a not-so-bizarro issue being targeted by Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, in the 2014 session. Romero attempted to pass a complete ban in the 2013 session, citing the cruelty and distress that gas-chamber euthanasia causes animals. That bill got put down after she caught flak from animal-control officers. Romero is still fine-tuning her bill, but expects it will limit gas-chamber use to only feral animals that may otherwise be difficult for animal-control officers to euthanize via lethal injection.

“I’d like to not see any animals put down at all, but if we are going to have to euthanize, then the most humane way is by lethal injection,” Romero says.

The Root of the Problem

“Be it enacted on this, the 10th day of January, 2014, that all members of city, county and state government in the State of Utah, be required to pass a lie-detector test, positively confirming that their decisions affecting the citizens of Utah are not influenced by their personal religious biases and prejudices. Failing to do so would automatically render them unfit and disqualified for government duty.” —submitted via e-mail

How It Would Work
Utah’s new Zion wall separating church and state would open a bold and progressive chapter in Utah’s history. Of course, this state would be comprised of portions of Salt Lake County, Park City and Ogden, while the rest of what was formerly known as Utah would have split off and become the state of Deseret. The public servants of this new Mormon state, with Provo as its capital, would have to sign onto BYU-standard honor codes to serve in government.

Back to Reality: 2014 Bills to Watch

Some legislative sessions are reflections of the national crisis of the moment. In 2013, it was guns and federal sequestration; in previous sessions, it was all about immigration. But 2014 is shaping up to be a year defined largely by Utah focusing on its own problems, like cleaning up the dirty air after choking down another winter of stick-to-your teeth inversion. Lawmakers will also be looking to clean up the dirty politics after having to choke down scandal upon scandal, all tied to the state’s ethically challenged former Attorney General John Swallow.

Beyond that, the Legislature will grapple with educating the children and protecting marriage.

Red-Air Day Blues

While the air outside the Capitol might not be fit for humans to breathe this legislative session, it’s possible that legislators could take some action on the topic, as they tackle the more than a dozen proposed bills that aim to improve air quality.

One such bill, which has yet to receive a name, would allow Utah regulators to exact laws and regulations that are more stringent than those required by the Environmental Protection Agency. At the moment, state regulators are prohibited from doing anything extra.

In 2013, a nearly identical bill crashed and burned in the legislature’s Natural Resources, Agriculture & Environmental Committee at the feet of Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab. As the bill was being discussed, Noel peppered attorney Joro Walker, director of Western Resource Advocates, with questions about lawsuits she’d filed against various state agencies. Although she insisted she had not filed a lawsuit against a coal mine in Kane County, Noel blurted out: “I just want to know why she hates my grandkids and kids down there so they can’t get any jobs down there.”

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Matt Pacenza, policy director for HEAL Utah, says he hopes the bill is taken more seriously this year. Taking a local approach to cleaning the state’s air is what’s needed, he says.

“We don’t have any laws that go beyond the EPA standards,” Pacenza says, noting that with geography and the propensity for inversion-like conditions, Utah has unique needs. “Our argument has been that Utah needs to craft the best possible solutions for Utah without having our hands tied by some law that arbitrarily says that we can’t do anything extra.”

Though not dealing specifically with improving air quality on the Wasatch Front, Rep. Jerry Anderson, R-Price, has taken a step to spell out exactly what types of components in our atmosphere are naturally occurring, and at what levels they should be considered pollutants.

Anderson’s House Bill 229 would add a section to Utah’s Air Conservation Act that would state that a number of naturally occurring components, like nitrogen, argon and carbon dioxide, would not be considered “air contaminants” as long as they remain under 500 parts per million.

Although Anderson insists his bill isn’t a jab at the science behind climate change—which suggests that as levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rise above 400ppm (levels are currently hovering around 396ppm), temperatures will grow increasingly warmer—he offered several opinions on the topic. “We could double what we have now and go up to 700 or [800] and it wouldn’t even be a problem,” Anderson says, noting that he believes much plant life in arid areas need more CO2 to thrive. “It’s with us, it’s part of life. Just think of how cold it would have been without global warming last month.”

Pacenza characterized Anderson’s bill as “a bid to prevent climate-change action by the state of Utah.” He noted that as CO2 levels continue to rise, the EPA will eventually mandate what standards the state must define as pollutants, making Anderson’s effort a “pointless message bill.”

“The notion that we don’t need to regulate carbon until it hits 500 is absurd,” he says. “It’s all just depressing. It’s a circus, a sideshow, a distraction when we actually have grownup decisions to make.”

Judge Shelby Deals Wild Card to LGBT-Nondiscrimination Debate

In 2013, a bill designed to protect LGBT Utahns from being discriminated against on the job or in housing simply for being LGBT made historic progress when bill sponsor Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, got it passed out of a Senate committee.

After that progress, however, the Senate decided to not bother hearing the bill on the full senate floor. It was a depressing setback for equality advocates, who vowed to push the bill to at least get a full debate and discussion in 2014.

With an inch of progress, however, comes a full nine yards of pushback. This year, Urquhart has to contend with the possibility that lawmakers angry over federal Judge Robert Shelby’s decision to allow same-sex marriages in Utah might take their frustration out on his non- discrimination bill.

On top of that, Urquhart has to defend against the First Freedoms Coalition, an alliance of conservative groups—including the Utah Eagle Forum and conservative think tank The Sutherland Institute—that argues that the bill could impact the religious freedoms of business owners.

Laura Bunker, a member of the coalition and president of United Families International—a nonprofit organization that promotes traditional families—argues that the law would create special rights for a new class of citizens, and as seen in other states, such laws lead to fines and lawsuits against religious businesses and business owners. The group’s literature lists many examples, including the case of a Colorado baker in trouble for refusing to make a cake for a gay wedding because of his Christian beliefs.

“These nondiscrimination laws may sound reasonable, but they are not fair to everyone,” Bunker says. “That’s why we’re letting Utah citizens understand there are potential harms that come from these laws, and there is a better way to resolve these differences.”

Bunker and coalition members couldn’t name a specific “better way” to resolve these differences that they would be advocating for as a compromise; they did repeat that Utahns want to get along with everyone but that using a law to create a new protected class wasn’t the way to do it.

For Urquhart, the coalition’s arguments are about scaring Utahns. Urquhart’s bill, as in years past, will focus on protections in the workplace and housing while also carving out exemptions for religious organizations, including religious schools like Brigham Young University.

“It’s my job to sort fact from fiction, and the campaign against [the bill], in my personal opinion, is mostly fictional,” Urquhart says, pointing out that the horror stories the coalition touts from other states wouldn’t be applicable to his legislation.

“That’s always the task in fighting an issue where people are energized like this ... the people who oppose the bill are going to, more often that not, tap into that energy by stretching the truth a bit,” Urquhart says.

Making Double-Sure About Churches and Gays

In case there was any confusion about the LDS Church’s stance on gay marriage, State Rep. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, has proposed a bill that would explicitly state that religious organizations won’t be forced to conduct gay marriages, if and when gay marriage returns to Zion.

Anderegg’s bill, House Bill 231, went public Dec. 19, the day before U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby struck down Utah’s ban on gay marriage—proof, Anderegg says, that it was not a reaction to the ruling that spurred 1,300 same-sex couples to exchange vows.

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Anderegg emphasizes that the proposed law is not a “hate bill,” but an effort to “give certain people a certain level of comfort that the world’s not going to end because gays can marry.”

But, he says, the federal government’s encroachment on state laws—specifically in the case of gay marriage—is “quashing” the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which grants some sovereignty to the states.

If the federal government can say state laws are violating same-sex couples’ rights to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment, as Shelby did in his ruling, then, Anderegg fears, a day may come when Washington could infringe on a religion’s First Amendment rights by ordering it to marry those it doesn’t want to marry.

Hence HB231, which would leave no wiggle room in the Beehive State when it comes to protecting a religion from having to perform a marriage it doesn’t want to—protections that the legislator admits already exist.

“I hope that my bill will never actually be pushed to a final test,” Anderegg says, adding that if it does, “My bill [will hopefully] send a very clear signal to the federal government: this is where Utah stands.”

Zion Walls and Booze Bartering

Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, will again be pushing a bill to allow Utah restaurant owners to tear out their Zion Walls, the partitions the law requires shield underage patrons from the sight of wine being poured and cocktails being mixed.

In 2013, the bill was wrangled through to a conference committee with Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, the Legislature’s point man on alcohol policy, and was shut down in the final days of the session. Wilcox, however, recalls that in bartering over the bill, he did manage a small victory in passing a bill authorizing the state auditors to audit the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

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Wilcox is realistic about the bill’s chances, recognizing that the opposition is still dug in deep in the Senate. This go-around, however, he’s optimistic he will gain a powerful ally in House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo, as a co-sponsor to the bill.

Even if that doesn’t get the bill passed in both houses, perhaps it could lead to another small compromise.

“I’ve never seen such an issue where you just take the smallest of victories and how painstaking they are to come by for how logical they seem to be,” Wilcox says. “It blows my mind.”

School Board Brawl

When it comes to the Utah State Board of Education, the buck stops with Gov. Gary Herbert. It is he who appoints folks to the Board of Education Nominating & Recruiting Committee. Each election cycle, this committee is charged with whittling the contenders down to three candidates in each of the state’s 15 educational districts. These names are then forwarded to Herbert, who chops one off the top and selects two per district to appear on the ballot.

So, even though voters think they’re choosing, they do so with Herbert guiding their hands.

Mike Kelley, a spokesman for the Utah Education Association, called this semicircle of name exchange “faulty and extremely cumbersome.”

Herbert’s days as Board of Education kingmaker may be numbered. State Rep. Brian M. Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, has proposed House Bill 228, which aims to strip this authority from the governor and his committee and place the selection of board members squarely in the hands of the state’s partisan caucus delegate system.

Greene’s bill, though, might not make it far. For starters, it will run square into the brick wall that is the UEA, which opposes dousing school-board elections with political ideology.

An alternative, then, is House Bill 223, brought by Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, who wants to wash Herbert’s hands of the selection process and create a direct, nonpartisan primary election, which the UEA says it would applaud.

Each representative has a different reason for his bill. For Greene, it was controversy surrounding the board’s handling of the state’s Common Core Initiative standards. Had the board been forced to answer to the people, Greene says, he doubts the Common Core standards would have been implemented.

On the other hand, Nielson, who has unsuccessfully kicked similar bills around for years, says he takes issue with the rationale used years ago to essentially usurp the voters and give the selection power to the governor.

“For some reason, when it comes to the state school board, the belief has been that the public is not able to do its duty, and therefore the process needs to be aided by an unelected commission,” Nielson says. “I have more trust in voters than I have in just about any other process.”

Reforming the way the board is picked hasn’t proven easy. And the question, Nielson and Kelley say, isn’t whether it needs reforming, but rather if it should end up being partisan or nonpartisan.

“I haven’t heard a whole lot of opposition to changing the current position,” Kelley says. “But it’s just a question of what we change it to.”

Swallowing Ethics Reforms

In the 11 months Attorney General John Swallow was in office, he went from being rocked by scandal to infused with scandal to ridden with scandal. And even after he resigned, special investigators released new evidence essentially showing Swallow to be drenched in scandal.

But where there is shame and loathing for the state, some lawmakers see opportunity for reforms.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, will be pushing legislation that would make the attorney general an appointed position, instead of an elected one, thereby removing future AGs from the conflicts that come with taking campaign donations from companies and individuals who may wind up in legal trouble with the state.

Weiler also told City Weekly in 2013 that by appointing the position, “the quality of attorneys serving as AG would increase, because we would be appointing someone on their merits and not on their ability to raise money.”

Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, will be running a bill similar to one from 2013 that would seek to curb the dangerous effects of “governing under the influence” of money by limiting campaign donations from a single source to no greater than $10,000.

Campaign-contribution limits have long been proposed on the Hill—usually by Democrats—only to be swatted down by conservative lawmakers as infringements on donors’ First Amendment rights.

But Powell says the Swallow scandal may have served as a wake-up call to his colleagues on the Hill.

“We worry about things a lot but don’t know if they are really happening,” Powell says of rumors of campaign-donor back-scratching. “But with some of the Swallow allegations, I think that we’ve seen actual practice of what seeking large campaign donations from influential and motivated donors can create.” 

The 2014 Legislative Session starts Jan. 27. City Weekly reporters Eric S. Peterson and Colby Frazier will be covering all the committees, votes, bills and bluster throughout the session. For updates, follow @EricSPeterson and @ColbyFrazierLP on Twitter.

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