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.
CHUG CHUG: Preschool Funding
Another successful comeback this session was a bill that funds preschool for at-risk youth from impoverished families. The bill was first brought forward in 2013, but was killed by critics who said it was trying to close the “achievement gap,” which is apparently a bad thing. This year, Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, successfully pushed through House Bill 96 after a debate on the floor that lasted more than an hour. The bill would set aside $3 million to repay private entities for funding preschool programming to help prevent kids from having to go into special education—a default route that currently costs taxpayers a lot more.
DERAILED: iPads for Kids
With a touch of boldness, a hint of political backstabbing and a whole lot of faith in lawmakers’ love of shiny technology, House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, unveiled a proposal for the state’s largest single-year allocation of education funding in history. It would not have done any of the following: reduce the state’s ballooning class sizes, increase teacher pay, restore the roughly 9 percent in education funding that was slashed during the great recession, or revive the couple of days of abandoned teacher-development time that teachers want back.
What it would have done is drop around $300 million per year over the next several years—and perhaps far into the future—to buy, replace, repair and fortify wireless infrastructure so that every one of the state’s K-12 students could have a digital device.
In the end, Lockhart’s insistence that the money would materialize if only her colleagues voted with faith didn’t get a chance to be tested. Senate leaders said no way on earth would they gut other budgets (transportation was a possibility) to give birth to Lockhart’s iPad dream. Herbert, meanwhile, said if any more than $30 million was aimed at the program, he’d veto it. Till next year, at least, kids will just have to keep learning the old fashioned way.
CHUG CHUG: Increased Education Funding
With Lockhart’s technology bill off the table, legislators did not drastically alter Herbert’s proposed $3.6 billion in public-education spending. The governor’s budget calls for fully funding the state’s anticipated 10,300 new students to the tune of $64 million. Meanwhile, per-pupil spending, a category in which Utah perennially ranks at or near the bottom, increased by $61.6 million—2.5 percent.
DERAILED: State School Board Reform
Dueling efforts to reform the much-maligned process of picking the Utah State Board of Education both failed. This means that the board, comprised of 15 members, will continue to be anointed through a peculiar process that starts and ends with Herbert.
As it stands, Herbert appoints a nominating and recruiting committee, which selects three candidates from each of the state’s 15 education districts and forwards the names to the governor. Herbert then picks his two favorites from each district, whose names are then placed on the ballot for voters to decide between.
Rep. Brian Green, R-Pleasant Grove, proposed a bill that would have eliminated this process and placed the selection of board members in the hands of the state’s partisan caucus system. Opposed by the Utah Education Association, his bill failed to make it out of committee.
Much hope for reform rested on House Bill 223, sponsored by Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, who felt a nonpartisan open primary was the most prudent way forward. But the bill, despite earning wide support in the House, passing 57-15, never got a vote from the Senate.
CHUG CHUG: Cannabis Oil for the Kids
Yes, this happened, and no, this isn’t the Twilight Zone. Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, gets props for having one of the most reworked bills of the session. His House Bill 105 went through nine substitute drafts before being passed favorably. The bill would allow parents with children who have epilepsy—sometimes experiencing hundreds of seizures a day—to be able to possess low-THC content cannabis-oil treatments for their children. While the parents will have many hoops to jump through, they now may have a treatment that can add years onto the lives of their children—happy, healthy years that are free from the drastic side effects of existing pharmaceutical treatments.
DERAILED: Medicaid Expansion
In the spirit of the 2013 legislative session, which saw state lawmakers digging in against anything related to the federal government, legislators in 2014 railed against Washington and Obamacare by refusing, for now, to expand Medicaid.
The legislature’s inaction left more than 100,000 uninsured Utahns in health-care limbo. To their credit, lawmakers talked about Medicaid. But the Republican-dominated House and Senate both refused to accept a full Medicaid expansion offer from Washington that would have redirected around a half a billion dollars in taxes—that Utahns already pay—back to Utah to fund the expansion.
Instead, lawmakers in the House proposed spending $35 million in state funding to cover a portion of the state’s uninsured who live below the poverty line.
The Senate put forth a plan that would have drawn on federal money to insure 54,000 Utahns who make less than $11,600 a year while not interfering with Herbert’s efforts to lobby the Obama Administration for a better deal on Medicaid.
Meanwhile, Herbert has put forth his own version for expanding insurance coverage for Utah’s neediest. His Health Utah Plan, which would require approval from the federal government, would accept $258 million in federal funds in the form of a block grant to buy private insurance plans for 111,000 uninsured Utahns. By feeding the money to the private sector, Herbert would achieve the double whammy of providing insurance to those in need, while simultaneously keeping residents off of Medicaid roles—anathema to Republicans.
DERAILED: Learning to Love Carbon
With 50 years of science teaching experience under his belt, Rep. Jerry Anderson, R-Price, put forth a bill that wouldn’t have allowed the state of Utah to take any meaningful action on carbon emissions until CO2 levels in the atmosphere exceeded 500 parts per million.
With CO2 levels currently hovering just under 400ppm, many scientists feel the tipping point for global climate change has come and gone. But most agree that reaching 500ppm would make life on Earth … well, let’s just say, interesting.
Anderson argued for his bill by noting that, eons ago, the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere were higher than they are today. He arrived at 500ppm because this number is detected on some volcanoes.
Higher levels of CO2 would promote plant growth in our arid deserts, Anderson said, testifying that the CO2 levels are cranked up in the greenhouses where Walmart petunias are grown.
Anderson’s House Bill 229 ultimately failed to clear its committee, but it will be studied in the interim session and could make a comeback next year.
Here is some of what Anderson had to say while arguing for his bill:
- “The carbon dioxide level back in the days of the dinosaurs was considered to be about 600 parts per million and they seemed to thrive quite well; very large bodies. And the vegetation back in those times was lush. There were a lot of huge trees that made coal for us in these days. So I’m thinking that we could double the carbon dioxide rate and not have any adverse effects that I can tell.”
- “If the whole arctic ice cap melted the sea level would stay exactly the same,” Anderson said, noting that the ice cap is floating. “So there’s no concern about drowning our cities around the world or any of that sort of thing.”
A few members of the public spoke against Anderson’s bill. One, Joe Andrade, a retired University of Utah biochemistry professor, called the bill “bad government,” and made reference to the widespread knowledge that as the Earth’s climate warms, paralleled by rising carbon levels in the atmosphere, life on Earth will become “largely intolerable.”
This statement struck a chord with Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, who noted that the winters have been cold lately, and so he’s not sure what to think about global warming. “I find myself really confused on this,” he told Andrade. “I remember years ago when former Vice President Al Gore did a chart and tracked CO2 with temperatures and said the Earth has a fever and the oceans are going to rise dozens of feet or whatever, and the ice caps are going to be gone and that’s all because of CO2. And yet, now we’re seeing the Antarctic ice cap as big as it’s been on record, or close to it. We’ve got the coldest winters—some of the coldest winters—on record. … I’m having a hard time with this.”
CHUG CHUG: Clean Air
Utah’s chunky air stayed away for much of the legislative session, making it necessary for legislators pitching clean-air bills to ask their colleagues to peer out from their Capitol Hill windows and imagine the inversion.
Even with clean air to breathe, bills aimed at cleaning the state’s air sailed through committee hearings usually with widespread support from both political parties. Clean-air advocates praised these early indications that clean air had at last arrived as a priority for lawmakers.
But by the time many of these bills made it through the process, they’d been carved down to shells of their former selves. In some cases—like a pair of bills that would have allowed the state’s Division of Air Quality to enact rules more stringent than Environmental Protection Agency regulations—clean-air efforts were suffocated altogether.
Much progress, though, was made. Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, marshaled several clean-air bills. Her House Bill 154 allocates $750,000 to help Wasatch Front residents who rely solely on wood-burning stoves for heat change them out for natural gas stoves. This bill initially would have given $250,000 to the Division of Air Quality to hire investigators to follow up on complaints of people burning wood on red-air days. Arent’s colleagues, though, balked at the idea of funding the “smoke police” and dropped this money.
Arent also passed House Bill 61, which allocates $200,000 to a grant program that will allow small businesses, like landscapers, to replace their polluting machines with more efficient tools.
The legislature approved the wholesale move of the North Salt Lake medical-waste incinerator Stericycle, giving the business the green light to relocate near Tooele on School & Institutional Trust Land property. Despite outcry from legislators who insisted the burning of medical waste wasn’t harmful to health, House Bill 196, which prohibits medical waste incinerators from operating within two miles of a residential zone, was passed.
But a potentially costly setback to air quality in Utah came with the failure of one of Arent’s efforts. House Joint Resolution 23 would have sent a clear message to the federal government that Utah wished to get on board with the federal government’s standards for cleaner gasoline. But after passing the House with a 55-20 vote, the resolution stalled in the Senate, failing to get heard.
Another bill that would have merely allowed cities and counties to place measures on the ballot to increase sales tax by a quarter of a cent failed in the Senate before getting a vote. Revenue generated through the sales tax increases would have been required to be spent on expansion of bus service and bike lanes.
Matt Pacenza, policy director at HEAL Utah, which advocated on behalf of a number of clean air bills, lamented the fact that many bills that had widespread support in the House simply failed to make it to a vote in the Senate. But Pacenza says that nine of the roughly 15 clean air bills he tracked were passed.
“I do think that if you take a step back and take a deep breath, you have to acknowledge that the legislature and the governor have provided more resources for the fight against pollution, and that’s just a fact,” he says.
They didn’t fit into our main categories, but these two issues have been raised in the Legislature a few times in recent years, and what happened to them in this session was worth noting.
DERAILED: LGBT Nondiscrimination
This session was looking so promising for a bill to be passed that would offer protection from workplace and housing discrimination to LGBT Utahns that a whole coalition was formed that started making false statements about the bill. The coalition, led by the conservative think tank The Sutherland Institute, even ran TV ads saying the bill would target BYU housing, even though the Sutherland Institute has been following this bill ever since it was first pitched in 2008 and knew full well the bill has always offered exemptions to religious institutions.
As it turns out, the bill was not even heard since legislative leadership decided that if lawmakers said something mean about LGBT Utahns, those words could be used against the state in its ongoing court case to bar same-sex marriages. That also means legislators will likely not hear the bill for however many years it takes for the marriage question to be settled in the courts.
CHUG CHUG: Downtown Convention Center
Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, passed a bill that had failed in 2013 to offer tax rebates to developers to expand the Salt Palace Convention Center and build an adjacent 1,000-room hotel. Wilson took a page from the Lagoon playbook by adding a “bounce back” component to this year’s convention-center bill that would divert some of the tax-rebate money into a fund that promotes festivals and attractions around the state to convention visitors, hopefully encouraging them to return to Utah in the future. That little deal helped sweeten the proposition for lawmakers outside of Salt Lake County, who helped pass the bill.
Sneaky Ninja Legislator of the Year:
Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville
Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville, gets the award this year for passing legislation introduced late at night, near the end of the session, and in a way that cuts out having the bill introduced at a committee where the public could share its opinion.
House Joint Resolution 7—originally pushed by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan—would have required the legislature’s staff attorneys do more work in preparing constitutional notes on bills, until Brown changed the bill on the House Floor at about 8 p.m on March 5 to do away with the notes altogether.
Constitutional notes are prepared to warn if a bill is likely unconstitutional and could result in a lawsuit for the state. The notes help the public and legislators know the risks of passing their bills. In 2013, for example, Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, had a bill that originally allowed for the arrest of federal law-enforcement officers trying to enforce federal gun laws in the state. That bill had a constitutional note larger than the bill itself.
Brown confidently told lawmakers that 40 percent of bills with the notes get passed anyway, so what the heck, why not just get rid of them? You know, to make the process smoother.
“We really talk about ’em a lot and never pay any attention to them,” Brown said.
If you’re thinking, “Well, why not take the notes more seriously, then?” your opinion is not shared by the majority of House members, who voted favorably for the bill that night, including House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo. Rep. Kevin Stratton, R-Orem, supported the bill, saying it would be better if the constitutionality of bills didn’t have to be aired “in the public sector.”
Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, who actually once worked the thankless job of a legislative researcher in the ’80s was the only member to point out that “the public deserves to know” about the notes, but her fellow colleagues simply tossed out some lawyer jokes and promptly voted the bill out.
Luckily, the bill died when it was not even heard in the Senate.
*Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly the amount of rape-kit funding.