2014 Legislative Preview: Utah Twilight Zone 

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

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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.”

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