2012 Utah Legislative Recap | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

March 14, 2012 News » Cover Story

2012 Utah Legislative Recap 

Sleeper Session or Nightmare on the Hill?

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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:


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

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.

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.

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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