Utah Legislative Wrap-Up 2015: Up in the Air | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

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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