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March 18, 2015 News » Cover Story

Utah Legislative Wrap-Up 2015: Up in the Air 

Lawmakers may not have acted on health care or Zion walls, but they sure did juggle the issues

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Utah's band of lawmakers entered the capital city in January prepared to take on the big issues of the day—health-care coverage for low-income Utahns, LGBT discrimination, religious liberty, criminal justice reform and the titillating thought of hiking some taxes.

In addition to these headline-grabbing issues, hundreds of other new laws filled the cracks. And in the midst of the 45-day session, as if the volume of controversy wasn't turned up high enough, Republican Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, introduced the state's first-ever medical-marijuana bill, which fell but a single vote shy of advancing to the House.

But the marquee job that weighed heaviest on the minds of politicians as they entered the session was deciding what to do about the roughly 126,000 Utahns who could be receiving health insurance coverage but aren't because the Beehive State has dragged its feet implementing an insurance program.

Robust rhetoric from Gov. Gary Herbert, who had spent a large portion of his time since the 2014 Legislature adjourned working on a health-care plan, said that taking no action on health care was not an option. House and Senate leadership echoed the governor's words.

But, alas, after much hand wringing, finger pointing, name calling and some political protectionism, no action on health-care expansion was exactly what happened.

The two sides, if there are two sides in a Legislature that has but 17 Democrats, simply couldn't come to an agreement. In closed-door caucus meetings, committee hearings and in news conferences, lawmakers talked a lot about expanding insurance coverage. But the political divide—largely between the Senate, which favored Herbert's Healthy Utah Plan, and the House, which seemed to favor anything but the governor's plan—was filled with a murky stew of anti-federal government sentiment that few were willing to dip a toe in.

And so lawmakers concluded their time on the hill, having raised the gas tax by 5 cents per gallon, doling out $500 million in surplus tax revenues to schools and giving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the religious liberty protections it asked for in exchange for supporting basic human rights for the LGBT community. They aso waded into the era of modern law enforcement, where the well-trodden path of warehousing drug addicted and mentally ill humans could be replaced with rehabilitation programs.

These lawmakers won't be away from the hill for long. On March 12, the final day of the session, Herbert held a news conference and announced that, indeed, nothing would be done on health-care reform. But he set a July 31 deadline for a deal, and vowed to call a special session of the Legislature to hammer out the details once and for all.

For the uninsured sick and dying Utahns who listened to Herbert promise in 2014 to take action on health-care reform, threaten to convene a special session, and then kick the deadline to summer, then fall, then by the end of the year and then to the legislative session, and now back to summer, the chance to visit a doctor really is just a big, shiny, moving target that is going to have to wait.

Here are four of the biggest issues lawmakers tossed around during the 2015 session, along with a bunch of other highlights.

Eric S. Peterson and Tiffany Frandsen contributed to this story.

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Healthy Utah?

For people who just need to go get their cholesterol checked but can't because they make too much money to be on Medicaid and too little money to buy health insurance or just pay out of pocket, the past few years might have seemed like a dizzying carnival ride of hope and disappointment.

The people operating the ride at the carnival are almost entirely white, male, affluent politicians who might not have any idea what it's like to rent an apartment, let alone go without their yearly physical.

And so it was during the 2015 Utah legislative session, where the state's most powerful people dickered over whether to bring back to Zion the hundreds of millions of dollars Utahns pay each year into the Affordable Care Act—but have so far chosen to forfeit the cash.

Gov. Gary Herbert's Healthy Utah Plan, which would have mirrored full Medicaid expansion by insuring all of the estimated 126,000 Utahns who fall in the so-called coverage gap, seemed like the best bang for Utah's buck. It would have been put in place for two years, netting nearly $1 billion that Utahns already spend for health-care programs, while costing the state $25 million. At the conclusion of these two years, the state would have had the option to review the plan or just straight-up shoot it dead.

This plan, marshaled through the Legislature by Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, was approved by the Senate on a 14-11 vote.

But it hit a big, fat roadblock in the form of Republican House Speaker Greg Hughes, who, for several days, said his brethren and sisters in the House didn't want to talk about it in public because in private, they had already decided Healthy Utah was dead, dead, dead.

Hughes caved in, kind of, when a rival bill emerged in the House in the form of Rep. Jim Dunnigan's Utah Cares. This bill, which was approved by a House committee moments after the same committee killed Healthy Utah, would have cost Utahns three times more than Healthy Utah, accepted a fraction of the federal money available and provided insurance coverage to tens of thousands fewer Utahns.

The arithmetic didn't really add up, and neither the Senate nor Herbert seemed pleased. All of this amounts to an impasse, which, at this moment, is squarely where Utah stands.

On the final day of the session, the House and Senate both signed off on House Joint Resolution 12, which says that everyone needs to come together and reach a solution to this sticky problem, and it set a deadline of July 31 to do it. On paper, then, it is perhaps not entirely accurate to say that the Legislature did nothing. They did something on health care, but no one is sure yet what it is.

Criminal Justice Reform

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Utah lawmakers have a hard time masking their disdain for President Barack Obama, Washington, D.C.; progressive politics and spending money; even when they know that spending a little money now could save a lot later.

But, so far, 2015 has proven to be an abnormal year. A good barometer to back this contention up is House Bill 348, which allocated $15 million to pay for substance-abuse and mental-health treatment programs as an alternative to the rampant incarceration of addicts and the mentally ill in Utah's prisons.

The common-sense factor on this bill seemed to resonate with both chambers of the Legislature, which overwhelmingly approved the bill.

A chunk of the Legislature's enthusiasm might well have been tied to the likelihood that the main branch of the Utah State Prison, currently occupying acres of seriously valuable real estate in Draper, appears to be on its way to an as-yet-unknown place where the land is less valuable.

But another impossible-to-ignore fact is that Utah's population is rapidly growing. And along with this growth will come an increase in the prison's population. However, by treating the estimated 80 percent of prisoners who suffer from drug addiction and mental illness, and by reducing some drug-related offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, lawmakers estimate that the prison population will grow much more slowly, and that it could help save the state $500 million in human-storage fees down the road.

The cumulative impact these reforms will have on human lives in the years to come is difficult to calculate. It's safe to say, though, that whatever happens, the Utah Legislature, with only three "no" votes in the House and unanimous support from the Senate, has never been more excited to drop millions of dollars on the state's most underserved people—its criminals.

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Common Ground on NonDiscrimination

For seven years, lawmakers have snubbed legislation to offer housing and workplace discrimination protections to LGBT Utahns. That was until the beginning of the 2015 session, when LDS leadership, in a rare public statement, called on lawmakers to pass just such a bill that would also at the same time protect the religious expression of Utah's faithful—and, as if blasted at point-blank range by Moroni's trumpet, lawmakers got the message loud and clear.

The end product was Senate Bill 296 which banned discriminating against Utahns simply on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation—except for certain exempted religious organizations and their affiliates (such as Brigham Young University) and parochial schools.

The bill gives employers the ability to regulate what kind of speech goes on in their offices. And if an employer allows his employees to talk religion or politics in the office, then the employer cannot punish any employee for expressing religious or political beliefs in reasonable and non-disruptive ways. Nor could an employer penalize an employee for political or religious expression outside the office (donating to Planned Parenthood or volunteering for the Eagle Forum for example).

Such expression was protected as long as it didn't run counter to an employer's "essential business interest."

Bill sponsor Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, pointed out that the bill, for example, would have likely protected the actions of a Salt Lake City Police officer who made headlines for allegedly being fired for declining to ride his motorcycle in the Utah Pride parade. The officer has said that he had made a reasonable request and found a replacement to cover that detail, and Urquhart said that kind of religious expression under the bill would have protected him from being fired or punished by his superiors.

The bill seemed to accomplish the impossible and moved heaven & earth to bridge some very disparate divides, as evidenced by the jubilant smiles of LGBT activists rubbing shoulders with the likes of LDS Apostle Elder L. Tom Perry at the bill's signing.

But even with the heft of the LDS Church's shoulder to the legislative wheel, it was a tough and, at times, emotional process. Rep. Brad Dee, R-Ogden, the bill's floor sponsor was one of many who urged his colleagues to consider the historic bill as a means of helping to heal the hurt between two often-polarized worlds.

"Please understand I'm not asking you tonight to condone a lifestyle that you don't believe in," Dee told his colleagues before the bill's victorious 65 to 10 vote. "I'm asking you to guarantee their rights, the same rights you and I have today." (Eric S. Peterson)

Yes We Cannabis! ... Almost ... Sorta

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In a session full of ambitious bills, perhaps none was more surprising than legislation seeking to allow the growing, dispensing and use of medical marijuana in Utah, pitched by Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs. While Senate Bill 259 was heralded by Utah families looking for medical alternatives—especially to narcotic painkillers that regularly take hundreds of Utahns lives every year in overdose deaths—Madsen's bill was a little too far out for his colleagues to pass out of the Senate.

Madsen's bill would have made Utah the 24th state to legalize cannabis for medical treatments, and it borrowed heavily from the knowledge of other states and the District of Columbia that have already legalized medical marijuana. But the bill also had unique Utah tweaks to it: Treatments couldn't be rolled up and smoked, but rather could be vaped or eaten in gummi form, for example. Utah's legislation also would have been the first to require that not only would patients already have to be undergoing treatment for certain conditions such as cancer or chronic pain, they would also have to get their medical weed script approved by a specialist—not just any quack doctor setting himself up to peddle weed as a profitable cure-all.

The bill drew some unique criticism, especially from a Drug Enforcement Administration official who made a strange warning after reflecting on a time he helped clear an illegal marijuana grow in Utah's wilderness where he was shocked to discover rabbits that had become addicted to eating the crop.

Won't anyone think of the bunnies? Not the Senate committee at least, as it voted in favor of the bill, if only by a narrow margin. But the real mellow harshing happened on the Senate floor where too many of Madsen's colleagues felt uneasy about such a dramatically new concept being heard and passed in the final weeks of the session. The bill failed the Senate by a single vote, but such a strong start so late in the session will mean medical cannabis will be a potent contender for passage in the 2016 session. (Eric S. Peterson)

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Just what do those 88 men and 16 women do up on that hill all winter? Here are the bills—failures and successes—that didn't dominate headlines, but might just give you heartburn.

Concurrent Resolution Regarding the Creation of National Monuments: SCR 4—A very official statement from the Legislature, on behalf of all Utahns, that urges Congress to craft a public process for the creation of national monuments, such as the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. A provision in this resolution, sponsored by Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, initially stated that the "highest and best" use for large tracts of land in the San Rafael Swell and Cedar Mesa is for livestock grazing and energy development. However, this language was reined in to state that these endeavors can continue on these lands in-step with recreation and conservation.

Water Infrastructure Funding: SB 281—This bill creates a bank account into which the Legislature will make a $5 million deposit in 2016—the first step toward paying for billions of dollars in water projects. Chief among these projects are the Lake Powell and Bear River pipelines, which state leaders insist are necessary to keep the lawns green for the millions of new Utahns expected to arrive here in the next half century or so. Water conservationists said the bill was little more than an effort to jump in front of an audit that is expected to show that state water managers have inflated water-use numbers in order to justify construction of these pipelines. Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, who sponsored the bill, said it was an effort to be prepared.

Analyses of Colorado River Management Strategies: HJR 25—On the topic of water, there is some debate as to whether or not the Colorado River can be everything to everyone. It already is everything to around 40 million Southwestern souls. In order to get a better handle on the load the river bears, Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, put forth this resolution that would have directed the National Resource Council to conduct a comprehensive study on the way the Colorado River is managed. The bill met a tough crowd in the form of the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee (some like to note that environment comes last in this list), where it failed badly on a 3-11 vote.

Prohibition on Tattooing of Minors: HB 143—Fifteen years ago, the late LDS Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley gave a popular speech to the Latter-day Saints about the evils of piercings and tattoos. That spirit lived on in this year's Legislature, if only briefly, when Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, put forth a law that would have banned the tattooing and piercing of people under the age of 14. Anyone between the ages of 14 and 18 could still get inked and pierced with a note from a parent. It cleared the House on a 54-21 vote, but stalled in the Senate.

click to enlarge Sen. Curtis Bramble, - R-Provo: - 28 out of 32 pieces - of legislation passed; - 88 percent success rate
  • Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo:28 out of 32 pieces of legislation passed; 88 percent success rate
Environmental Quality Boards Amendment: SB 200—Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, is renowned for her efforts to shake up the compositions of various state boards. This year's session was no different, and one of the boards Dayton targeted was the state's Water Quality Board. High on the list of rules for the board was language that required it to have one member who "is not connected with industry." With its passage, Dayton's bill put a fat black line through these words.

Department of Environmental Quality, Amendments: SB 244—On strict partisan votes, Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, combined two different divisions of Utah's Department of Environmental Quality. What was once the Division of Radiation and the Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste is now the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control. Critics of the merger worry that pending decisions about how to deal with depleted uranium in Utah could be stripped from those familiar with the issue.

Air Quality Amendments: SB 208—This bill would have increased the penalties levied upon polluters and extended the statute of limitations under which polluters can be punished. Put forth by Sen. Luz (Robles) Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, the bill would have, in some cases, raised the fine for polluters who violate Utah's air-quality regulations from $25,000 to $45,000. The bill died in the Senate on a 12-14 vote.

Quality Revisions: HB 226—The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has said in the past that one barrier it faces in fighting the Wasatch Front's lung-clogging air is that it can't enact regulations more stringent than those required by the federal government. In 2014, an effort to change this failed. And in 2015, it might have failed had the words "more stringent" not been replaced by "different." Now, Utah will be able to enact air-quality laws that are "different" from those required by the federal government. Time will tell where this leads, but on the surface, the law represents a small victory for air-quality advocates.

A Utah Call for a Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: HJR 7—By narrow margins (40-30 in the House and 15-13 in the Senate), Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, was able to get Utah to ask Congress to convene a convention, at which states would presumably demand that the U.S. Constitution be amended to include a provision requiring that it have a balanced budget. Don't hold your breath while waiting for this to go down. Two-thirds of all states must achieve the same notoriety as Utah before a convention could take place.

Death Penalty Procedure

click to enlarge Sen. Karen Mayne, - D-West Valley City: - 9 out of 12 pieces - of legislation passed; - 75 percent success rate
  • Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City:9 out of 12 pieces of legislation passed; 75 percent success rate
Amendments: HB 11—2015 was the year that Utah brought back the firing squad. Now, because of the bill from Rep Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, every single time an inmate is killed in any state, Utah will be mentioned as that Wild West place that still shoots its prisoners. Of course, it will use bullets only if a suitable chemical cocktail isn't available to inject into the veins of said prisoner. It's hard to imagine, though, that death-penalty advocates around the country aren't frowning, while those opposed to killing prisoners are secretly smiling. Utah's use of the firing squad does much more to ignite the flames of debate about whether state-sponsored killing should be allowed than it does for humanely killing bad guys. And, as evidenced in the narrow votes in both the House and Senate, many lawmakers understand that Utah looks oh-so-stupid in the eyes of the world for resuscitating this avenue to death.

State Domestic Animal: SB 53—To the relief of cat lovers across the Beehive State, an effort to crown the Golden Retriever the state's official domestic house animal, failed on the final day of the session. The House voted 27-43, dashing the hopes of a fourth-grade class that had petitioned Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, for the bill, along with dog lovers everywhere. Had things gone differently, the Golden Retriever would have taken a place right in between Utah's cooking pot, the Dutch oven, and its state symbol, the beehive.

Cockfighting: SB 134—After years of bickering over Utah's soft laws pertaining to cockfighting, the Legislature, with just over two hours remaining in its session, at last took action. Anyone caught participating in cockfighting will now be slapped with a third-degree felony on their third offense. The bill from Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, passed the House on a 41-33 vote.

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Zion Wall

A favorite target for Utahns and non-Utahns alike when it comes to the state's lampooned liquor laws is the Zion Wall, those partitions that shield the public from the cocktail-concocting process. And with the passing of each year, hopes rise that the Legislature will do as President Ronald Reagan did, and demand that a wall, any wall, be torn down.

This year was not the year. Lawmakers in 2015 did very little about anything having to do with alcohol laws. Perhaps the highest-profile matter regarding booze came from Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, who endeavored to clarify the rules regarding the issuance of special permits. The law apparently stemmed from a kerfuffle in 2014 regarding Snowbird Resort and its efforts to obtain a special alcohol permit for its months-long Oktoberfest celebration. But even this bill foundered and failed to be heard by the Senate.

Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, started 2014 and 2015 off with his sights set on destroying Zion Walls—or at the very least, making them a little more agreeable for restaurant and bar owners. But in 2014, the effort was torpedoed, at least in part by a strong public statement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—an impact that may well have carried over into this year's effort, which crashed before it ever really got off the ground.

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Public Lands

Rare is a day that passes during the legislative session when Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, misses a chance to take a jab at the federal government and the job it does managing around 31 million acres of public land in the Beehive State.

Noel commands a large stage as a member of the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee, where he trumpets the charge to seize large swathes of the public's land in Utah. But when a couple-hundred people showed up on March 5 in the Capitol Rotunda to urge lawmakers to give up their costly efforts, Noel wanted that stage, too.

During much of the hour-and-a-half-long rally, called The Great Public Lands Gamble, Noel stood at the front row, appearing to listen intently as speaker after speaker declared his or her love for Utah's natural treasures, and the need to protect them. When the rally's lone musical act, The Slick Rock Stranger, strummed a version of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," Noel sang along.

But when the last speaker had spoken, Noel marched up the steps and asked for the microphone. He uttered only a few sentences, saying he represented much of the land in question, and that he felt the speakers were spewing "misinformation." The crowd booed, the microphone cut out, or was cut off, and Noel made his way into the crowd, where he met his foes face to face.

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