It matters little that this week marked the beginning of the 56th general session of the Utah Legislature. Even if it marked the 156th general session, chances are good that not much will have changed. We’d still have a 45-day session full of loads of middle-aged white men working out their Old Testament wrath on the larger world with all sorts of “message bills.” The pattern has become so predictable it’s passÃ© to complain about it.
Last year, with a Senate bill prohibiting state funding to hospitals performing abortions and Rep. Stephen D. Clark, R-Provo, talking about “varying degrees of rape,” matters got so bad that Senate Minority Whip Ron Allen, D-Stansbury Park, warned of serious damage to Utah’s ability to attract corporations, and therefore taxpaying jobs. Creative business and high-tech minds don’t exactly gravitate toward such twisted politics, he said in essence. Creative business minds don’t take kindly to homophobia and conservative minds obsessed with United Nations “plots,” either. Then Senate President Al Mansell, in turn, defended our Legislature as “morally upstanding.”
How refreshing, then, to hear new House Speaker Greg Curtis talk about the dawn of a new sort of rhetoric in the Legislature. “The aim of every debate should be progress, not just victory,” The Salt Lake Tribune quoted him. “Tolerance means respecting others. It means we work for our constituents, not our egos.”
Say what you will about Curtis’ dubious, dual role as House Speaker and attorney for a well-known law firm active in property-development issues. (And people should be saying a lot about that.) Talk like that is sure to land a mark against him over at the Eagle Forum.
As tiresome as the proceedings get up on the Hill, however, no one can deny that it offers entertainment value. Everyone has his or her favorite tales from years past. My fondest memory of legislative tomfoolery stretches back to 1996, when Republican—what else?—Sens. Charles Stewart of Provo, Howard Stephenson of Draper and Senate Majority Whip Leonard Blackham of Moroni went head-to-head with the state’s education officials in a closed-door meeting, trying to find out who was responsible for “promoting” homosexuality in Utah schools after students at East High School moved to form a Gay-Straight Alliance. Stewart treated those in attendance to a homophobic film titled Gay Rights/Special Rights; it was later discovered the company responsible for that film also produced anti-Mormon propaganda. Justice at the Legislature has rarely been so even, or sweet, since. And who could forget the 1999 attempt by Rep. David Zolman, R-Taylorsville, to legalize polygamy or, has he put it, take the matter “to the vote of the people.” Power to the polygamists, everyone!
Every year we hold our breath in hopes that state lawmakers will spend their time fine-tuning the big issues of taxation, education and health care only to discover that they’ve yet to recover from an obsessive love affair with concealed weapons. Every year we hope for substantive debate that will evolve into that rare Utah species: the well-made law, or two. Maybe this year we’ll be pleasantly surprised, rather than feel like we’re watching a train wreck in slow motion.
British social reformer, historian and trade unionist Beatrice Potter Webb famously said, “Democracy is not the multiplication of ignorant opinions.” Hope, and even pray if you like, that this year’s Legislature will at last prove her correct.