Every bill rides a train up the Hill toward passage into law. It’s a tough track to ride, as they chug through committees, the House and the Senate, picking up amendments, public ridicule and substitute drafts along the way. Not every bill arrives at the final station, where Gov. Gary Herbert, like a friendly conductor, will see the bill out of the Hill and sign it into law.
Every year, plenty of bills fly off the rails—voted down or killed by a committee just as they’ve begun their journey. The 2014 session was no different, except that a number of bills that have derailed year after year finally made it through.
For some of those bills—like the one that allows election-day voter registration and one that’s an initiative to fund preschool for disadvantaged youth—it took a sponsor who was determined enough to shovel the coal needed to get them through. Others were pushed up the Hill by overwhelming public demand.
This year, the bad taste of grime in the air finally helped the public get lawmakers to pass a number of air-quality reforms. Likewise, the grimy taste of former Attorney General John Swallow’s pay-for-play politicking helped usher in ethics reforms that otherwise wouldn’t have stood a chance of passage on the Hill.
But not every bill can make it up that Hill, especially when powerful forces dynamite the tracks. It seemed as though this year might see the passage of a statewide nondiscrimination bill to protect LGBT Utahns from housing and workplace discrimination. But legislative leaders refused even to hear it.
An effort to remove the “Zion Walls” that shield restaurant patrons from watching alcoholic drinks being prepared originally had the backing of House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo. But right before the Legislature began, the LDS Church released two videos saying the laws are just hunky-dory, and the bill crashed and burned.
Take a ride with us now as we look at the critical bills that made it over the hump, from cannabis-oil treatments for epileptic kids to the controversial Count My Vote compromise bill and more.
DERAILED: Zion Wall Teardown
Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, pushed House Bill 285, which would have allowed restaurants to take down their walls if they instead posted notices that alcohol is publicly seen and poured, giving patrons fair warning so they could make the choice to dine elsewhere if desired. In an effort to take down the walls, Powell tightened regulations in other parts of Utah’s booze laws, restricting minors from sitting near a bar in a restaurant.
The debate offered one of the session’s greatest questions, from one Republican lawmaker to another. After Rep. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, opined that Powell’s bill would blur the line between bars and restaurants, Powell asked, “Have you ever been into an actual bar? It’s not a restaurant, it’s quite clear.”
Powell’s bill to batter down the Zion Walls cleared the committee by a single vote, but was not even heard in the House. Powell himself pulled the bill when he realized that the Senate had no plans to consider it this session.
DERAILED: Mandatory Bar Breathalyzers
Breathalyzer machines are starting to pop up in bars, giving patrons the chance to spend their quarters on something other than the erotic-photo-hunt game. Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, was so impressed by the devices (breathalyzers, not the erotic-photo-hunt machines) that he toyed with the idea of making them mandatory in all bars to help patrons know if they’ve had too much before getting behind the wheel. He backed off that idea and instead passed legislation that requires that breathalyzers in bars undergo regular service to ensure they’re working well. The bill also protects bar owners from being sued if someone uses one of the machines but still drives drunk.
CHUG CHUG: Second Chances for Minors
Under current liquor laws, minors have just two strikes if they’re caught with alcohol. The first strike means a minor’s license is suspended unless the youth takes a substance-abuse class. And if the kid screws up again, it’s a mandatory two-year suspension of their license. Rep. John Knotwell, R-Herriman, passed House Bill 137, which gives youth one more shot to straighten up and fly right, allowing them to submit an affidavit to a judge showing that they’ve been alcohol free for a year and possibly have their two-year suspension commuted.
CRIME & PUNISHMENT
CHUG CHUG: Rape Kit Money
When officials with the state crime lab said in January that only about 30 percent of rape kits are submitted by law enforcement to get tested, it set off alarm bells with lawmakers who are in charge of funding criminal-justice programs. The Utah Department of Public Safety scrounged up $750,000 in its budget to address the roughly 2,000 untested kits, which could possibly help law enforcement apprehend rapists and sexual offenders. At one time there was even talk of the lab needing $600,000 a year in ongoing funding to keep up with all the tests. Playing it safe, though, the lab decided to just focus on using the $750,000 of one-time money to do what they can this year while they strategize how to process more kits in the future.*
Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, also passed House Bill 157, which requires law enforcement to at least give sex-assault victims the courtesy of letting them know if they decide not to submit their rape kit for DNA analysis.
CHUG CHUG: Don't Drone Me, Bro
A coup for those wary of the Beehive State sliding down the slippery slope toward a dystopian world of sentient government machines was Senate Bill 167, which regulates the use of drones in the state. The bill, from Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant, backed by probable cause, before they can dispatch the machines to your backyard barbecue.
CHUG CHUG: No-Knock Warrants Get Scaled Back
Another bill focused on government killing machines passed the Legislature this session, putting the brakes on law enforcement using force to enter homes. The bill would especially impact “no-knock” warrants that have in the past resulted in deadly clashes between police and homeowners who may not be aware that it’s law-enforcement officers and not a criminal who has burst into their home in the middle of the night.
House Bill 70, passed by Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, would limit law enforcement from undertaking such raids without a judge’s approval unless there is evidence that a person’s life is in danger or that police announcing themselves would result in evidence being flushed.
Another bill, passed by Sen. Deirdre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, would for the first time require the state's more than 100 law-enforcement agencies to submit to the state their data on all the forcible entry raids they conduct. Her Senate Bill 185 would also require the agencies to report back to the Legislature with the number of doors knocked down, bullets fired, drugs seized, etc., to determine whether it was worth the force.
CHUG CHUG: Prison Relocation
The when and where haven’t been decided, but someday—sooner rather than later—the Utah State Prison in Draper will be moved. The legislature expressed widespread support for moving the colossal facility, which currently sits on 700 acres of prime real estate off of Interstate 15 near the point of the mountain.
Beyond merely sounding approving horns, the legislature formed a Prison Relocation Commission to study potential spots for the new prison. The commission, made up of three members of the Senate, four members of the House and the executive directors of the Justice Commission and Department of Corrections, is expected to study the possibilities and report back to the legislature next year.
This commission is not permitted to solicit contracts for construction of the new prison or decide what to do with the mountain of cash that’s expected to change hands when the prison does move. Draper City officials unveiled their vision for the land currently occupied by the prison. The plan includes office buildings, shopping centers and high-density residential units.
The construction cost of new prison facilities has been estimated at $600 million. And in addition to tens of thousands of dollars in salaries that will be paid to legislators appointed to the commission, the legislature allocated $3.4 million to the new commission’s efforts.
CHUG CHUG: The Swallow Ethics Effect
While allegations of corruption at the Attorney General’s Office have festered for years, the scandals of former Attorney General John Swallow seem to have finally helped lawmakers wake up and smell the gangrene. Post-Swallow ethics bills included House Bill 394, pushed by Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, which—inspired by all of the secretive fundraising that Swallow conducted—would force candidates to disclose how money paid to political consultants is used. HB394 would also require that candidates disclose all business partnerships going back a year before their run for office—again because of sneaky shenanigans that Swallow pulled when trying to hide business interests right before running for office. It would also create a $100 civil penalty and make it a class B misdemeanor for a candidate to knowingly file inaccurate financial disclosure forms.
House Bill 390, passed by Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, would also make obstructing a legislative investigation a class A misdemeanor, thanks again to Swallow.
And House Bill 246, passed by Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, also adds penalties for candidates who fail to file disclosure documents on time and would require lobbyists on the Hill to wear name tags identifying them as such.
The stench of Swallow was so bad that it almost caused lawmakers to support setting limits on how much individuals can donate to candidates in an election. Salt Lake City Rep. Brian King’s House Bill 297 would’ve created $10,000 caps for statewide races and $5,000 caps for legislative ones. The Democrat’s bill failed in the House by only three votes.
CHUG CHUG: Same-Day Voter Registration
In other comeback news, Chavez-Houck passed a bill that had been killed in the 2013 session that allows voters to register and vote on election day. This year, her House Bill 156 made the program a pilot for counties to voluntarily participate in to see if it works and is something that should later be mandatory for all counties. Chavez-Houck’s other secret weapon this year was bringing the son of popular former legislator Holly Richardson to testify about how he couldn’t vote in his first election because clerks lost his forms. Well-played, Chavez-Houck; well-played.
CHUG CHUG: The Great Count My Vote Compromise
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, proposed Senate Bill 54 to head the Count My Vote grassroots initiative off at the pass. The legislation turned out to be the right kind of political chess move to bring Count My Vote into negotiations with lawmakers, resulting in a new SB54—a compromise that would allow Utah’s would-be politicians to be elected in the current caucus system or gather enough signatures to bypass it and go directly to the primary elections.
The fact that Count My Vote wouldn’t stop its efforts until the bill was signed into law meant lawmakers did a lot of grunting, posturing and complaining about the bill before voting in its favor by a wide margin.