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March 14, 2012 News » Cover Story

2012 Utah Legislative Recap 

Sleeper Session or Nightmare on the Hill?

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If there’s one thing the legislators of the 2012 session are losing sleep over, it’s the 2011 session. That was the year lawmakers tried to simultaneously dogpile on undocumented immigrants, sneak-attack Utah’s open-government-records laws and duke it out with the federal government. Still weary and shellshocked from 2011, it’s no wonder lawmakers wanted the 2012 session to be such a tranquil and sedate affair. But even if it seemed like the Legislature slept through the session by sidestepping major issues such as immigration, liquor-store privatization and other hot-button issues, plenty of other bills will make for a rude awakening for Utahns when they become law.

For better and worse, the Legislature ground out some potent laws to govern Utahns going forward. Lawmakers found the money to help cover young autistic children, but at the same time, ensured Utah schools will be limited to teaching abstinence-only sex education, even if a student asks about contraception. While the House took a sincere, but unsuccessful crack at repealing driving-under-the-influence checkpoints over constitutional concerns, another bill passed both houses to allow the repossession of public lands from the federal government—which legislative staff have outright said would get the state sued on constitutional grounds. And while legislators railed against the tyranny of Uncle Fed, they nonchalantly turned around and stuck it to local governments—Salt Lake City government in particular—with laws meant to squash local control over idling ordinances, e-billboards and other measures.

The 2012 session goes to show that Utah voters can’t even get a little rest during a sleeper session—unless they want to wake up to regret it.

The Vice Squad

Keeping an Eye on the Booze Biz

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Utah drinkers can drink with minds and livers untroubled by the Legislature’s antics this year. The totality of the Legislature’s teetotaling this session has had little impact on Utahns’ ability to get a drink, but rather focused on efforts to improve oversight of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which has been wracked with controversy since evidence of mismanagement and graft was reported in 2011.

That’s why Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, passed Senate Bill 66, which would increase oversight by adding two members to the liquor commission and create a special audit division that reports directly to the oversight liquor commission.

Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, passed House Bill 354, which would for the first time create a centralized location for alcohol-crime statistics to be gathered so that politicians can make decisions based on facts rather than conjecture. Cheers to that.

Drinkers can also raise a glass to Rep. Brian Doughty, D-Salt Lake City for attempting to pass a bill that would require at least two members of the liquor commission to be drinkers. That bill at least made it through the House before being cut off by the Senate.

Stop for DUI Checkpoint
Rep. David Butterfield, R-Logan, proposed House Bill 140 to remove driving-under-the-influence checkpoints from the state, arguing the evidence doesn’t show the stops have helped prevent DUIs and are constitutionally questionable. While the bill had strong support with House leadership, the bill was stopped and turned around by the Senate.Hookahs on Hold

There’s some good news for the Huka Bar & Grill, as well as those who like their vices inhaled in the presence of friends, strangers and waitresses. A move to ban hookahs has been put on hold for five years. The proposed prohibition would also extend to e-cigarettes, which are water-based and therefore can currently be smoked inside public buildings. The Legislature figured that in five years’ time, the science would be far enough along to verify the need to put the bubbly hookahs and the smoke-free e-cigs on the list of items prohibited by the Utah Indoor Clean Air Act.

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Graffiti Pre-Crime Bill Defeated
Computer hackers who have had the technological ability to break into government websites did so for the first time publicly in protest of Senate Bill 107 (sponsor: Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City), which would have made it a crime to be caught with graffiti paraphernalia at the wrong time and place. Ostensibly, the bill was designed to give law enforcement the power to level a ticket on someone contemplating a blank wall at 2 a.m. with spray-paint can in hand.

A group called Anonymous hacked into the Salt Lake City Police Department’s website in protest of the bill, apparently oblivious of the fact that Mayne is from West Valley City. Regardless, the bill never made it out of the Senate.

Dr. Feelgood

Nobama Care
Senate Bill 208 (sponsor: Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton), which seeks approval from Congress to allow Utah to join four other states in opting out of federal health care, is more than just a legislative middle finger to President Barack Obama’s landmark 2008 health-care reform, known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. According to supporters, it’s another example of a Utah solution to a blanket federal approach; to Democrats, the bill is dangerous even as a message bill. Luckily, however, the compact of states, including Utah, that want to secede from the health plan would have to get approval from Congress first.

Prognosis for Congress to re-write national health care for the sake of five states: not good.

Autism Coverage Pilot
But if there were one program that could show the feds that Utah knows how to take care of its own when it comes to health care, it’s House Bill 272 (sponsor: Rep. Ronda Menlove, R-Garland). Menlove helped move this legislation to provide health coverage for as many as 750 kids in Utah between the ages of 2 and 6 who have autism. The children would receive as much as $30,000 a year to cover intensive one-on-one treatment that will save the state immensely in the long run by getting them the care they need to help them integrate into society, rather than just getting dumped into costly permanent-care services once they turn 18.

The $6 million that was scraped together to fund the two-year pilot program is testament to the advocacy of mothers of autistic children who have been fighting for the coverage for years—and to the work of bill sponsor Menlove and Speaker of the House Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, who wielded her gavel with impunity to secure the funding.


Top 5 Tweets

Highlights from the 2012 Legislature in under 140 characters

@RobertGehrke: “Next up Rep. Chris Herrod’s HCR1: Letter to the Federal Government: ‘Dear Federal Government…you are a fat jerk’ #utpol #utleg” Feb. 29

@BenMcAdams: “Top-ten signs you’re a Dem in the #utleg, #8: When you speak on a bill, Eagle Forum kids in the balcony are told to plug their ears. #utpol”  March 8

@GOPTodd: “Hatch reassures the #utleg that he believes in them and listens to them. He spent almost all of his time answering one question.” Feb. 24

@DaveMontero: “Gold resolution passes. If Flavor Flav moved to Utah, his money would literally be where his mouth is.” March 2

@BenMcTastic: “Top 10 Capitol Pick Up Lines, #1 “Let’s suspend the rules and caucus at my place.” #utleg #utpol”  Feb. 14


Think of the Children!

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No “C” Word Allowed in Classrooms
Condoms! Contraception! These are just a few of the taboo words that Utah teachers will be unable to utter during any sex-education course happening in schools, thanks to House Bill 363 (sponsor: Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden).

Wright argued that if a school chose not to teach sex ed at all, it wasn’t a big deal since it’s “not like all our students are going to die if they don’t learn promiscuous behavior.” Not to be outdone by that sound bite, Gayle Ruzicka, founder of the conservative Eagle Forum lobby group, likened teaching about contraception to schools sending the message that certain drugs were OK: “Just say no to sex outside of marriage,” Ruzicka said. And just to round things out, committee member Rep. Lavar Christensen, R-Draper, noted sex education wasn’t necessary since “The Earth has been populating itself fine on its own for centuries.”

Utah’s sex-education has always been abstinence-focused, meaning that abstinence was the only measure taught and advocated for in preventing sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. If a child asked about contraception, however, the teacher could discuss the subject. But not anymore; now, discussion of contraceptive measures is prohibited, and schools also have the option of dropping sex ed entirely.

The bill language didn’t specify, but presumably if a child asks about contraception or topics such as homosexuality or sex outside of marriage, the teacher is to feign ignorance and push a panic button to summon masked men to remove the child from the classroom for immediate re-programming. The sex-ed bill passed with little discussion (see “Silence!” p. 18).

Of the legislators who did speak against the bill, many were teachers who argued that their colleagues were out of touch with the world Utah’s students live in. If only there were a way to make lawmakers go down to the schools and see what it’s really all about …

The Bill That Didn’t Pass That Would Have Forced Lawmakers to Go Down to Schools
Senate Joint Resolution 26 initially asked lawmakers to spend 16 hours in Utah schools, but after some tweaks, it became a resolution simply encouraging lawmakers and state school-board members to visit schools and report their findings on a website so all voters could see who was doing extra credit as elected representatives and checking out the schools. Then the Senate decided that even that was too much work and killed the resolution.

Speaking of Sex

Abortion Delays By Katherin Nelson • comments@cityweekly.net

Utah is now tied with South Dakota for having the longest abortion waiting period in the nation, thanks to House Bill 461. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, tripled the waiting period between the state-required counseling session and a scheduled abortion from 24 hours to 72. Abortion clinics are not fun places to visit. They’re always dark, the staff isn’t chipper and the reading material and waiting-room “art” is always stale. Aside from the zealous “death camp” protesters clamoring outside the clinic, people who go to abortion clinics usually aren’t excited to be there, and they’re not enthusiastic about the prospect of returning. HB461 originally called for all counseling sessions to be held at abortion clinics. This required women seeking abortions to visit the clinics at least twice over three days in order to be provided with the procedure. However, that provision was removed from the bill to make accommodations for women in rural areas with limited access to clinics. But the result is still the same: Women are forced to make two trips to a clinic and spend three days mulling over the information spoon-fed to them at the doctor’s office. For a state full of folks constantly rallying for smaller government, they sure like the government’s big presence between a women’s uterus and her doctor.

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Most Prolific Legislators
The top legislators from both parties who got the most bills passed just so happen to be the returning champions from 2011:

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Republican

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo
20 out of his 26 proposed pieces of legislation were passed, for a 76.9 percent success rate






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Democrat
Sen. Ben McAdams,
D-Salt Lake City
9 out of his 15 proposed pieces of legislation were passed, for a 60 percent success rate

The Legislature, like a classroom, generally doesn’t like a show-off kid doing extra work and making everybody else look bad.

$chool Money
Despite other bad news, education came out all right this session. Per Gov. Gary Herbert’s request, funding was allocated to accommodate the 12,500 new students enrolled in public education, and Utah’s higher-education faculty will see a slight 1 percent salary bump.

You Hush Now

Boarded Down
For a sleeper session, one technical bill sponsored by Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, may be a subtle game-changer when it comes to the power of environmental regulators in Utah. Senate Bill 21 changes the makeup of certain boards that make rules and approve permits for companies whose operations may affect water and air quality, radiation, hazardous waste and drinking water. These boards have previously been run by a combination of citizens, government representatives and public-interest advocates. While advocates will still have a seat at the table, the table now will not be able to approve or deny permits from, for example, EnergySolutions seeking to bring nuclear waste to the state or an oil developer wanting to drill near a park or monument. The permit process of these boards now will be decided by the director of the Department of Environmental Quality, an appointee of the governor.

With the Utah Manufacturers Association as a major backer, the bill shot through the Legislature. Environmental advocates blasted the bill for consolidating power with the governor’s office, which often is more pro-business than pro-environment or pro-public health.

Cherise Udell, founder of Utah Moms for Clean Air, blasted the DEQ, whose mission, according to its website, is to safeguard the public and enhance the environment.

“Nowhere does it say ‘safeguard industry by protecting and enhancing their bottom line,’ ” Udell said.

Legislature 2013 Watch: A move is afoot to change DEQ mission statement to “Safeguard industry by protecting and enhancing their bottom line and burning kittens for fuel.”

Socialist Lake City Prevails
“Every time certain cities go out and pass an ordinance I almost anticipate us having a bill in the Legislature over it,” said Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, as he argued for his bill that would have reversed Salt Lake City’s ordinance restricting electronic billboards in the city. Niederhauser, like almost all of his conservative colleagues on the Hill, don’t take kindly to the federal government telling Utah what to do, but the state telling cities what to do is different, darn it.

“When they go out of the bounds of the fundamentals we believe in, then yes, it’s the state’s right to step in,” Niederhauser said.

With the e-billboard bill and an anti-idling bill, the “hippies” in SLC government appeared to be the targets of legislation meant to reverse city decisions. Both efforts, however, were dodged by the City of Salt. The e-billboard amendment never made it over the final hurdle to pass. Sen. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan (yet another Salt Lake County legislator named Wayne), did pass House Bill 104, which restricts cities from passing anti-idling ordinances like Salt Lake City’s. Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, did help finagle a compromise to the bill that allowed Salt Lake City and other municipalities to enforce idling bans on cars just sitting and polluting on public streets, but that enforcement would be stayed if the vehicles were on private property like a resident’s driveway.

LGBT Discrimination Approved for Another Year
Since 2008, Democrat legislators on the Hill have been trying to make it illegal for businesses and landlords in Utah to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Utahns. This year, Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, took a new tack and brought a supporter in the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce to argue that extending the discrimination protections would be better for business in the state.

One legislator argued, however, that employers could be put in a tough spot if an applicant says they are LGBT during the application process, which would then make the employers worry about breaking the law for not hiring them. Beyond that, other lawmakers simply repeated the same argument as in years past: that a business, such as a religious bookstore, should have the right to be able to fire people who don’t represent the business’ clientele.

Since the religious-bookstore example has been brought up since 2008, the next session’s bill should probably include an exemption for Deseret Book and be done with it.

Wild West Legislating

A pair of bills cleared the Legislature that would set Utah up for showdown with the federal government over federal lands. One bill seeks to transfer the control of as much as 30 million acres of federal land in Utah to the state, to aid energy development. The showdown would exempt land designated as a national monument, but would seek land in most of the Grand Staircase Escalante Monument. The battle is one that’s all hat and no saddle when it comes to constitutionality, however, since attorneys for the Legislature warned the legal standing is shaky at best and will inevitably involve a lawsuit that will cost taxpayers.

Coyote’s Ugly Ears
In an effort to look out for Utah’s embattled mule-deer population, a bill was passed to fund $750,000 per year, through at least 2014, to increase the bounty from $20 to $50 for a pair of coyote ears, putting more folks on the hunt for the varmints who are a threat to the deer population.

In completely unrelated news, a bill funding software for special-needs children passed the Legislature only after the one-time funding was reduced from $3 million to $300,000.

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Gun Totin’ and Gun Votin’
Utah is a state where it’s legal to openly carry a firearm, but gun activists have chafed at some municipalities who have ticketed individuals for disorderly conduct just for carrying their piece outside their clothes for all would-be robbers, murderers and coyotes to see. That’s why Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield introduced House Bill 49, which would have clarified that those carrying weapons couldn’t be cited for disorderly conduct.

The bill had a clear shot at passing, but was holstered on the last day of the session. Now the bill will be studied before the 2013 session.

A Safe, Open Utah

Putting the Brakes on Inspections
Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, passed House Bill 298 after a lot of haggling. The bill would require that Utah vehicles don’t need annual safety inspections anymore. Instead, for cars less than 12 years old, the inspections would come on a car’s fourth, eighth and 10th year on the road, and annually every year afterward. Fees have been increased to keep revenue flowing to the state, and a portion of the funds have been reserved to help fund more Utah Highway Patrol Officers.

Just Like GRAMA Would Have Wanted
In the 2011 session, the Legislature sought to death-panel GRAMA, Utah’s 1991 Government Records Access and Management Act, which allows the public—and the media—access to government records. When the public outcry at the Legislature’s attempt to gut the law became too much for lawmakers to handle, they instead convened a working group and studied the issue throughout the year.

Senate Bill 177, passed this session by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, is much nicer to GRAMA than 2011n’s House Bill 477, which restricted the public’s access to certain records and put more of the cost onto the public. SB177 will, however, set down in specific language that a record be disclosed when the interests weighing in favor of its disclosure are equal to or greater than interests seeking it remain private.

The bill also would require annual online training for records managers at all government levels and would also create a new records ombudsman office. The ombudsman would help citizens who have questions about requesting public documents and would also referee between government entities and records-requesters to help resolve issues and cut down on costly and unnecessary records requests.

Gone But Not Forgotten
The sausage-grinding of the Legislature can sometimes grind up more than bills. This session’s close saw the announcement of several lawmakers retiring from the hill, leaving holes behind in both parties’ leadership. From the Democrats, House Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, is retiring, as well as Minority Whip Rep. Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights. Both plan to spend more time with their families. Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero has also announced he won’t be seeking re-election, as he’s currently running for Salt Lake County Mayor.

Republicans saw the loss of Senate President Michael Waddoups of Taylorsville, who has made no official post-retirement plans, as well as Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, who has officially filed to run for State Auditor in the fall elections.

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Silence!How Margaret Dayton works to limit discussion
In the Utah Legislature, Democrats know their chances of defeating many bills are slim to “no chance in hell.” That’s why it’s nice when they can at least challenge their conservative colleagues to defend their positions on a bill. Unless that means going against Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem.

Dayton rules her bill discussions with an iron fist. This point was driven home during the discussion on the 2012 session’s controversial sex-ed bill. As the Senate sponsor of the House bill, Dayton announced that she would not answer any questions about the bill, stymying Senate Democrats. Then she moved to suspend the rules so the bill could be rushed out of the chamber with even less discussion.

Dayton even seems to like passing bills that limit public involvement in government. In 2011 she passed a bill to limit the participation of citizen-run advisory commissions that have volunteer tax and law experts advise legislators on issues. This year, she passed Senate Bill 21, limiting the powers of environmental boards also partially staffed with citizens.

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