Considering the rising costs of energy, it makes sense for school districts to consider optimizing their schools for efficiency—or so it would seem, at least to Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray.
This past legislative session, which ended March 11, he ran a resolution urging school districts to consider building “green” schools whenever possible. Although the environmental benefits would be undeniable, Wheatley focused his resolution on the tens of thousands of dollars districts could save annually with schools that minimized energy use.
The resolution required nothing of school districts, not even that they study green schools. It simply urged them to consider green building techniques, a message that Wheatley considered important. Yet the resolution failed to pass the House. Republicans focused their opposition on the added building costs for green schools and Wheatley’s inclusion of the phrase “current climate,” which he unsuccessfully tried to explain simply meant that Utah was hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and had nothing to do with climate change.
“I wanted for legislators to not be afraid of the phrase ‘green schools,’ ” he says. “It’s a little frustrating, but I try to not let it get to me. We’ll work on it next year.”
Wheatley’s resolution may have failed, but this year’s Legislature had no shortage of bills that sent a clear message about who lawmakers think Utahns are—or should be. They are gun nuts who don’t want the government tracking their guns. They doubt science—this year, they specifically doubted climate change, as made clear in a resolution. They have a vendetta against the federal government, a statement made in almost a dozen different resolutions and bills. Finally, they will do almost anything to protect the unborn, including sending a woman to prison for a miscarriage caused by her behavior.
And as for the minorities, gays and environmentalists: Please stand at the back of the room. The residents of Utah have tired of your demands.
Agree with the Legislature or not, those were the de facto official messages being sent from Capitol Hill on behalf of the entire state. And they weren’t going unnoticed nationally, either. From Fox News cheerleaders like Glenn Beck to The New York Times, stories about the actions of the Legislature—the Utah Legislature (as opposed to legislators themselves, see The Bad, Worse and Truly Evil)—seemed to make waves across the country on a weekly basis. Attention was focused on the state when Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Lehi, considered honoring gunmaker John M. Browning on the same day as Martin Luther King Jr., a proposal he eventually withdrew (Browning will now be honored on the 100th anniversary of his invention of the semiautomatic pistol with a one-time-only commemoration on Jan. 24, 2011). There were also national reverberations when Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, wanted to amend the state constitution to outlaw affirmative action, a bill that was rejected mid-session but remained a focus for activists, bloggers and commentators. And legislative hypocrisy shone brightly when a tobacco tax passed, despite vows from many legislators and Gov. Gary Herbert for no new taxes (to be fair, most of those legislators who made that vow voted against the tax, but it passed anyway).
Rep. Kerry Gibson, R-Ogden, who ran a resolution that initially denounced global warming as a “conspiracy” and urged Congress to reject cap-and-trade legislation, eventually saw the bill easily pass the House and Senate, despite an outcry from university scientists and environmentalists. About the only concession he made was to remove the word “conspiracy,” but it was still made clear during debates that a significant number of legislators—and their constituents—believed the theory to be just that.
The resolution is nonbinding, meaning it lacks any actual teeth. But Gibson said it really was to push federal officials to reconsider restrictions on carbon emissions because of the potential negative economic impact. And he was doing it on behalf of the Utahns he represents.
“I really think that something coming out of the Legislature reflects the majority of the state,” he says. “The people, through their elected officials, are speaking. But it’s not just a message, it’s a policy debate. We’re weighing in on the policy.”
Thanks to serious budget shortfalls, legislators found themselves unable to propose bills that would cost money, which limited their ability to do something. So, the other option is to say something, and many of them did so through nonbinding resolutions. This year, in fact, there were almost twice as many resolutions as in 2009 and also in 2008, the last election-year general session (election years traditionally seem to have a lot more resolutions, period).
Beyond resolutions, however, this year’s session saw actual laws amended for the specific purpose of tangling the state up in lawsuits with the federal government—about the only non-budget bills that cost money that legislators really considered. Those were done to plant the flag of state sovereignty, and done so because Utahns (again, the majority) are disgusted with the increasing federal powers.
“The people of the state of Utah are irritated,” says Rep. Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley. “There’s nothing we can do to impact the federal government. So, the thing we do is fix a state statute. It will have more impact than a resolution, even if we won’t always be successful.”
The most expensive proposed bill would allow the state to exercise eminent domain over federal lands. Because of the almost guaranteed legal fights, the Legislature could end up spending as much as $3 million to defend the bill, a price that sponsor Rep. Chris Herrod, R-American Fork, says is worth it. In a March 2 story in The Los Angeles Times, Herrod said that the state really had two options: rebellion and the courts.
Another bill sure to wind up in a lawsuit was signed mid-session by Herbert and would essentially exempt any firearm or ammunition made in the state from federal regulations. While that bill could, potentially, cost the state millions of dollars in legal fees, state officials are expecting Montana, which passed a similar law prior to Utah’s, to be the primary litigant.
Before that bill was signed in late February, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said that the state would file a brief supporting the Montana law. The law would not implemented by state officials until that case was decided.
"I think somebody will challenge the constitutionality of the statute. At that point, we simply go to court and not answer the complaint and agree to delay implementation of the law," Shurtleff told The Salt Lake Tribune.
For Democrats, who had no luck stopping the stampede of bills begging for a lawsuit, the real frustration was that they were being passed in a year when every nickel and dime mattered.
“It’s not just that they were sending messages. They went way over that,” Senate Minority Leader Pat Jones (pictured at left), D-Holladay, says. “People will grow very tired of how much time and money is being spent on these court battles when there’s so much that didn’t get funded.”
Among the amended code, a change to abortion laws that would allow for criminal charges against a woman who suffers a miscarriage because she acted “recklessly” stood above all else for both actual impact on Utahns and the national reaction. Initially, the bill received minimal opposition from even the most ardent pro-choice groups, most notably Planned Parenthood of Utah. After it passed the Legislature but before Herbert signed it, the law received hefty national attention, including multiple stories in The New York Times and on Fox News. Wimmer went on cable news shows to defend it, while liberal online outlets like Daily Kos and the Huffington Post trashed the bill for its potential use against a woman who forgets to use her seat belt or has a glass of wine before having a miscarriage. Eventually, Wimmer pulled the bill back from Herbert and amended it with intent language that said the reckless behavior had to be intentional.
Kids Count (Little)
The abortion bill debate sent the clear message that Utahns care about the unborn, but other failed bills cast doubt on how much they care once those children are born.
Consider the bills the Legislature did not pass this session: Prohibitions on selling junk food in school vending machines, restrictions on smoking in cars with children, sex education that goes beyond abstinence-only.
Additionally, at least some legislators began looking at children as potential cash machines instead of students. Along with the preservation of vending machine revenues in schools, there were also proposals to eliminate 12th grade, which would have saved millions of dollars, and to use school buses as mobile billboards. Neither of those proposals passed.
In fact, those bills not passed or even debated may have sent as strong of a message about the feelings of the majority of Utahns as those that were passed. After all, one of the strongest messages of the session came during a Senate committee hearing about the proposed changes to the sex-education laws, when the committee members sat in silence for almost five minutes instead of opening the debate.
And finally, there was the great war that never started: gay rights. An agreement between conservative leaders and gay rights proponents postponed all debate on gay rights until at least 2011. While it initially drew ire from both arch-conservative legislators and gay-rights activists, Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City, says the moratorium will allow things like the nondiscrimination ordinances to continue moving on the local level. It also meant that, at least for this session, gays did not become the punching bag for conservatives looking to fire up their constituents.
“In a year when ultra-conservatism is running rampant, it didn’t seem worth it.
We would have gotten clobbered,” Johnson says. “Every time we suffer defeat, it’s very hard on the morale of our community. We have been very aggressive for a few years. But this was not a year to be aggressive.”
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