2014 Legislative Preview: Utah Twilight Zone | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

January 22, 2014 News » Cover Story

2014 Legislative Preview: Utah Twilight Zone 

If City Weekly readers were legislators, things would be a lot different here

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Zion Walls and Booze Bartering

Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, will again be pushing a bill to allow Utah restaurant owners to tear out their Zion Walls, the partitions the law requires shield underage patrons from the sight of wine being poured and cocktails being mixed.

In 2013, the bill was wrangled through to a conference committee with Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, the Legislature’s point man on alcohol policy, and was shut down in the final days of the session. Wilcox, however, recalls that in bartering over the bill, he did manage a small victory in passing a bill authorizing the state auditors to audit the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

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Wilcox is realistic about the bill’s chances, recognizing that the opposition is still dug in deep in the Senate. This go-around, however, he’s optimistic he will gain a powerful ally in House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo, as a co-sponsor to the bill.

Even if that doesn’t get the bill passed in both houses, perhaps it could lead to another small compromise.

“I’ve never seen such an issue where you just take the smallest of victories and how painstaking they are to come by for how logical they seem to be,” Wilcox says. “It blows my mind.”

School Board Brawl

When it comes to the Utah State Board of Education, the buck stops with Gov. Gary Herbert. It is he who appoints folks to the Board of Education Nominating & Recruiting Committee. Each election cycle, this committee is charged with whittling the contenders down to three candidates in each of the state’s 15 educational districts. These names are then forwarded to Herbert, who chops one off the top and selects two per district to appear on the ballot.

So, even though voters think they’re choosing, they do so with Herbert guiding their hands.

Mike Kelley, a spokesman for the Utah Education Association, called this semicircle of name exchange “faulty and extremely cumbersome.”

Herbert’s days as Board of Education kingmaker may be numbered. State Rep. Brian M. Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, has proposed House Bill 228, which aims to strip this authority from the governor and his committee and place the selection of board members squarely in the hands of the state’s partisan caucus delegate system.

Greene’s bill, though, might not make it far. For starters, it will run square into the brick wall that is the UEA, which opposes dousing school-board elections with political ideology.

An alternative, then, is House Bill 223, brought by Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, who wants to wash Herbert’s hands of the selection process and create a direct, nonpartisan primary election, which the UEA says it would applaud.

Each representative has a different reason for his bill. For Greene, it was controversy surrounding the board’s handling of the state’s Common Core Initiative standards. Had the board been forced to answer to the people, Greene says, he doubts the Common Core standards would have been implemented.

On the other hand, Nielson, who has unsuccessfully kicked similar bills around for years, says he takes issue with the rationale used years ago to essentially usurp the voters and give the selection power to the governor.

“For some reason, when it comes to the state school board, the belief has been that the public is not able to do its duty, and therefore the process needs to be aided by an unelected commission,” Nielson says. “I have more trust in voters than I have in just about any other process.”

Reforming the way the board is picked hasn’t proven easy. And the question, Nielson and Kelley say, isn’t whether it needs reforming, but rather if it should end up being partisan or nonpartisan.

“I haven’t heard a whole lot of opposition to changing the current position,” Kelley says. “But it’s just a question of what we change it to.”

Swallowing Ethics Reforms

In the 11 months Attorney General John Swallow was in office, he went from being rocked by scandal to infused with scandal to ridden with scandal. And even after he resigned, special investigators released new evidence essentially showing Swallow to be drenched in scandal.

But where there is shame and loathing for the state, some lawmakers see opportunity for reforms.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, will be pushing legislation that would make the attorney general an appointed position, instead of an elected one, thereby removing future AGs from the conflicts that come with taking campaign donations from companies and individuals who may wind up in legal trouble with the state.

Weiler also told City Weekly in 2013 that by appointing the position, “the quality of attorneys serving as AG would increase, because we would be appointing someone on their merits and not on their ability to raise money.”

Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, will be running a bill similar to one from 2013 that would seek to curb the dangerous effects of “governing under the influence” of money by limiting campaign donations from a single source to no greater than $10,000.

Campaign-contribution limits have long been proposed on the Hill—usually by Democrats—only to be swatted down by conservative lawmakers as infringements on donors’ First Amendment rights.

But Powell says the Swallow scandal may have served as a wake-up call to his colleagues on the Hill.

“We worry about things a lot but don’t know if they are really happening,” Powell says of rumors of campaign-donor back-scratching. “But with some of the Swallow allegations, I think that we’ve seen actual practice of what seeking large campaign donations from influential and motivated donors can create.” 

The 2014 Legislative Session starts Jan. 27. City Weekly reporters Eric S. Peterson and Colby Frazier will be covering all the committees, votes, bills and bluster throughout the session. For updates, follow @EricSPeterson and @ColbyFrazierLP on Twitter.

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