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March 16, 2011 News » Cover Story

Utah Legislature 2011: Reloaded 

Utah lawmakers take their best shots at 2011’s big issues.

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BRYAN BEACH
  • Bryan Beach
A tea party-flavored tide helped usher in the most conservative Utah Legislature in decades. The mandate was to fight federal encroachment, offer common sense solutions and ensure transparency in government. Many legislators took that message to heart; others erased it from memory as they do their e-mails in case a snoopy reporter asks for them.

Then with their ducks in a row, these legislators came out guns blazing. They took on the feds, immigrants, bath salts, feral cats and anything that offends the decency of god-fearing, red-blooded, red-state Utahns.

If nothing else, it was a session of boldness. It was a session where “small ball” issues, as former President George Dubya referred to them, were pushed aside in favor of solving big problems in a big way and doing it on a dime.

More bang, less buck.

Immigration Fixes And Tweaks
Too many bees in the beehive don’t have papers, and Utahns demanded the Legislature do something about it. Despite the abundance of tough talk, the Legislature offered more carrot than stick when it came to immigration, deflecting multiple efforts to punish undocumented immigrants.

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Top Party Pooper
Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland

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Every year, the Legislature pitches a number of feel-good bills that designate days, weeks and months as times of awareness or celebration, be it Italian-American Heritage month (House Bill 44), a month raising awareness of the dangers of outdated medicine (House Bill 241) or Mitochondrial Disease Awareness Week (House Joint Resolution 35). City Weekly discovered an interesting trend in these bills: party-pooper legislators who voted against them. And one legislator who appeared to poop on every party? Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland.

Perhaps Dougall is just taking a principled stand against such bills as time wasters (See “Hot Air,” p. 18). But there were two notable exceptions to his “nay” votes:

He did not vote against Senate Concurrent Resolution 12 to make February “Wear Red Month” to raise awareness of heart disease among women. The voting record shows Dougall was absent for that vote.

And, when it came time to designate Feb. 6 as Ronald Reagan Day, Dougall joined every other legislator in voting affirmatively. Somewhere, the Gipper is smiling on you, Representative.

IN-STATE TUITION
Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, drafted a bill to repeal in-state tuition for the more than 600 students in Utah colleges and universities who are children of undocumented parents. That bill was amended so that the benefit could be allowed if students could prove they or their parents paid income taxes for the previous three years. This compromise bill never saw the light of day, as the Senate kept the bill off the floor and refused to debate it, thus leaving the benefit intact for another year.The Driving Privilege Card

The card created in 2005 to allow undocumented immigrants to purchase car insurance was under attack this session by Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George. He argued the card encourages immigrants to commit identity fraud. Urquhart found himself challenging Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, who helped originally create the card. After five drafts, a compromise bill was passed. That bill negated the identity-theft concern by requiring immigrants who seek the card to have their photograph and fingerprints taken.

BE OUR GUEST
Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, was not the first legislator this session to propose a bill meant to bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and legally into the Utah workforce. His bill was preceded by that of Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City. But ultimately, his House Bill 116 was the one the Legislature decided to run with. An advantage Wright holds—being a salt-of-the-earth dairy farmer—is being personally aware of the economic need for undocumented labor. (It also probably didn’t hurt that he isn’t a Hispanic Democrat from Salt Lake City.)

Wright’s bill would, pending the governor’s signature, seek a federal waiver to set up a state guest-worker program. Applicants would pay a fee to enroll: $1,000 for those immigrants who overstayed on visas and $2,500 for those who entered the country illegally. Similar to Robles’ bill, applicants would also have to complete criminal background checks and be fingerprinted.

THE FED-FRIENDLY VISA
One bill that plotted a careful course between states’ rights and the federal government’s right to regulate immigration was a bill crafted by Senate leadership and Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. This bill facilitates federal work visas to be offered by Utah businesses to legal immigrants from the Mexican state of Nuevo León.

”THE IMMIGRATION "STICK"
Orem Republican Rep. Stephen Sandstrom’s Illegal Immigration Enforcement Act, patterned after a similar controversial Arizona bill, originally mandated that law enforcement verify the immigration status of all lawbreakers. Sandstrom’s enforcement bill survived passage in the Senate only after he removed the language that allowed officers to verify status based on “reasonable suspicion.” Instead, the bill allows law enforcement to check at their discretion the status when crimes committed are class B and C misdemeanors. Serious misdemeanors and felony arrests will still require the officer to check immigration status.

Booze & Spice And Everything Not Nice
Utah is a business-friendly place, where market forces rule and regulations equal socialism—unless it’s the booze business.

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Top Legislative Tweets
Highlights from the 2011 Legislature in 140 characters or fewer

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@Ben McAdams: “I’m baffled why my resolution asking for heightened federal regulation of state government hasn’t passed. #utpol #utleg” Feb. 18

@RobertGehrke: “And the vote is 28—0. We live in a republic. Final vote tomorrow. It has restored my faith in democracy. We should totally get one.” March 2

@JoshLoftin: “BREAKING GIGANTIC SURPRISE: #HB477 Passes Senate. Media balls, meet legislative foot. #utleg #utpol #MyDaddyisUTLEG” March 4

@Sausagegrinder: “I like to imagine a tiny Quasimodo rings the House bell in a.m. Then I imagine tossing him off the Dome after 7 straight minutes of it.” Feb. 8

@MaxRoth: “HB477 passes. UT Leg took 4 days for sneak attack on freedom of press. That means they have time for religion or assembly next week!” March 4

@UTferalcat: “The Feral Cat Caucus would like to honor Catrick Henry, the father of the feral revolution #utpol” March 9

@RobertGehrke: “Operation Wimmerstache Update: I had a donut for breakfast today. Something about flakes of icing help a ’stache look lush and full. #utleg” March 8

@RepBriscoe: “Feral legislation-no committee hearing, unveiled afternoon of the last day. #utpol #utleg” March 10

LIQUOR STORES
The state-owned liquor monopoly brings more than $50 million to state coffers annually but doesn’t get a percentage of those profits. Instead, the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control is budgeted money like any other government department. This year, due to budget cuts, legislators slated the closure of as many as 13 stores and the firing of 150 employees.

These same budget cuts also will mean restricted hours, meaning some liquor stores will close as early as 7 p.m.

ROOM SERVICE
A plus for the Utah hotel industry was a change in liquor laws that allowed hotels to serve a single alcoholic beverage to guests. Existing law only allowed for bottle service. Now, hotel guests who want to awaken by drinking a single breakfast screwdriver don’t have to order a full bottle of vodka. Good morning!

BAR NONE
In other booze news, Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, passed a liquor bill to increase the number of liquor licenses for restaurants—but not club licenses. The new law, however, normalized service hours for restaurants, giving some good news to the brunch crowd, since all restaurants can serve alcohol starting at 11:30 a.m. instead of noon.

BYE-BYE BEER SPECIALS
A last-minute addition to the Senate bill after it had already cleared a public hearing was a one-word change that gathered no mention in debates. It prohibits bars from offering daily beer specials. The reason? To prevent overconsumption. This bill goes into effect July 1, when it will be adios to cheap-draft nights and PBR can specials. For now, it seems cocktail specials are still OK.

SPICE SQUAD
Everyone’s favorite synthetic cannabinoid (fake pot) was banned in Utah faster than a spice buzz wears off on a full stomach. The bill outlawing spice and Ivory Wave—a bath salt said to cause a cocaine-like high if snorted—was among the first signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert this session.

While bill proponents—who were thinking of the children—had no trouble garnering support, they failed to factor in the price tag of $350,000 which the state labs would need to buy the equipment needed to test for spice compounds.

3 Barely Legal Highs Likely to Be Outlawed in 2012 Session
1. Chewing Kratom: Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, eager to jump on the banning-designer-drugs bandwagon, proposed legislation this session to ban kratom. If you’ve never heard of kratom, clearly you’re not from Thailand or Malaysia, where the substance has been used for centuries. While kratom has a chemical structure similar to psychedelic drugs, the effects are not the same. Herrod pulled the bill when it was recommended that it be first studied by the Controlled Substance Advisory Board to see if it required legal prohibition. Concentrated doses are said to have a possible opiate-like effect. But the major effects of chewing low doses of kratom leaves appear to be an antioxidant boost, enhanced energy and a mild sense of well being. This leads us to believe it will either be outlawed by the 2012 Legislature or will be offered as nutritional supplement through a local multilevel-marketing company, in which case it will enjoy the fullest federal protection possible and receive product testimonials from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

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2. Smoking Nutmeg: Thanks to a hard-hitting November KSL exposé, Utahns recently discovered that the youth are now smoking nutmeg! Won’t someone think of the children—besides KSL and the Utah Legislature, that is? Hopefully not, or coming regulations will severely restrict Utahns’ funnel-cake-baking freedoms.

3. Making Yourself Pass Out: Reports are trickling in that children lacking access to real drugs are forcing themselves to pass out. It would be irresponsible for City Weekly to divulge specific methods for this altered state, but one form involves a series of deep breaths followed by a bear hug from another individual. The other involves locking one’s knees for a certain length of time to halt blood flow.

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Happiness Is A Warm Gun
GUNNING FOR CATS
House Bill 210, lovingly known as the feral cat bill, sponsored by Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, would have allowed exemptions from animal cruelty laws for those who shoot a cat they reasonably suspect is feral. The bill was amended to prohibit anti-stray vigilantism in urban settings and seemed likely to pass until it was “neutered” the final day and failed to pass.

GUNNING FOR A STATE GUN
Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, succeeded in making the Browning M911 a state symbol, citing John Browning, the gun’s inventor, as a Utah native. While the bill grabbed national headlines, the designation loses novelty, considering Utah already has a ton of “official” designations, for example: a state folk dance (square dance), a state cooking pot (Dutch oven), and both a state vegetable (Spanish sweet onion) and a historic state vegetable (Sugar beet).

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Top 3 Reasons Liberals Should Miss Chris Buttars
The crusty Republican homophobe senator from West Jordan retired at the conclusion of this session. Here’s three reasons progressives shouldn’t be so happy to see him go.

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1. Buttars sponsored the 2005 Drug Offender Reform Act pilot program. This rather progressive piece of legislation is aimed at linking drug offenders with existing treatment options instead of just cycling them through jail and prison.“A lot of people think we should get tough on crime,” Buttars told City Weekly in 2007. “I think we need to get smart on crime first.”

2. He was the only conservative to challenge his party on HB477, the controversial bill designed to gut Utah’s two-decade-old open-government records law. Buttars admitted he hadn’t read the bill and chastised his fellow lawmakers—Republicans and Democrats—for rushing to pass a bill more than 1,800 lines long.

3. He was the only senator—Republican or Democrat—to vote against Sen. John Valentine’s liquor bill. He even criticized the need for a liquor-license quota system as “legislative creep.”

The Biggest Little Government In The World
Government Right to Privacy—Even on Public Business
House Bill 477 sought to undo a 20-year-old open-government records law in the space of 72 hours—and succeeded. The bill received no support in public comment and was admittedly passed quickly to avoid media objections. It carved out large exceptions for the Legislature to operate in secret. The bill also sought to take out existing language in Utah’s legal code that guides courts and government to disclose records when it benefits the public’s right to know, and sought to rule out text messages as even being considered a public record—even if they’re sent by public officials, on taxpayer-funded phones, to other public officials, about public business.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, criticized the media for distorting issues affecting them by claiming “the sky is falling.” He argued the bill’s process was fair and equitable … and then he suspended normal rules for debate and helped whoosh the bill out the door. Two days later, and after hundreds of angry calls to Gov. Herbert and the Legislature, the bill was recalled and implementation was delayed until July 1, so that a working group can study possible changes to the bill in a special session of the Legislature planned for June.

OUT OF COMMISSION
Senate Bill 44, which grabbed less notice than HB477, would give the Legislature (more specifically, the dominant party) more control over independent expert commissions like the Tax Review Commission and the Constitutional Review Commission. Sponsored by Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, the bill would make these volunteer commissions, which currently meet year-round, only meet when called by the Legislature, governor or the Legislative Management Committee.

During house debate, multiple legislators supporting the bill argued that they didn’t know exactly how some Constitutional Review Commission members viewed the Constitution—basically arguing that the commission might include legal experts who see the Constitution as a “living” document, contrary to most Republicans’ view.

Additionally, the Tax Review Commission, which is staffed largely with nonpartisan volunteer tax accountants and other experts, is charged with reviewing state sales and use taxes as well as numerous economic development tax credits. Those tasks would be put in the hands of the Legislature’s Tax & Revenue Committee. That which was billed as a cost-cutting measure simply cuts out checks and balances, critics say.

REFERENDUM KILLER
Senate Bill 165 emerged as a direct pushback from the Legislature against recent citizen ballot initiatives designed to force ethics reforms on lawmakers. SB165 would not only invalidate the use of electronic signatures for ballot petitions, but also raises the standard needed to get a petition on the ballot. Of course, that’s what citizen activists get when they try to petition a bull by the horns.

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Hot Air
It’s often the practice of the Legislature to write resolutions known as “message” bills. This session, 18 such bills were debated, discussed and sent off to the federal government urging Congress to get its act together. Once these bills have passed the Utah Legislature, they’re shot out of a cannon into Washington, D.C., bombarding the beltway fat cats with stern demands to respect our state sovereignty. Some message bills come across louder than others, but for the most part, they’re “meaningless,” to quote Rep. Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara. But that doesn’t stop them from being discussed and debated, however—at taxpayer expense. Case in point: Clark made that comment while discussing a message bill urging the federal government to call a constitutional convention. 

Total time spent this session debating “message bills” to the federal government: 13 hours, 34 minutes

Most Prolific Legislators
The legislators from each party who proved the most capable turning the wheel on the sausage grinder include:

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Republican
Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo
21 bills and 2 resolutions passed out of 37 proposed pieces of legislation for a 56.76 percentage
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Democrat
Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City
11 bills passed out of 19 proposed for a 57.89 percentage

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Ruled Out
In the Legislative process, a bill has to fight its way through the system. Ideally, it’s a process of debate and discussion where bills are given a fair shot before a committee and then the entire Legislative body to be scrutinized, haggled over, and voted on. But the first step in passing any bill is getting it through the dreaded Rules Committee.

The Rules Committee in either house decides if a bill is even ready to be heard at a committee. It’s like the bouncer at the club who decides if you’re pretty enough to come and party with the other bills.

Here’s a breakdown on the number of bills never allowed into the club.

totalbills.jpg
• Total Bills Stuck in Rules: 50

Republican-sponsored Bills Stuck: 37

5.53 percent of total Republican-sponsored bills

Democrat-Sponsored Bills Stuck: 13

12.38 percent of total Democrat Sponsored Bills

Sunshiney Legislative Days
LOBBYIST HOMEWORK
The Legislature did fix up government ops in some notable ways. Sen. President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, passed Senate Bill 251, which penalizes lobbyists who do not complete annual ethics-training exercises. Penalties range from a $1,000 fine to suspension of their lobbyist license.

NOTING PERFORMANCE
Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, passed a bill creating a “performance note” for future legislation. This bill would require bill sponsors seeking to create new programs to make note of expected goals and milestones the program should accomplish. That way, legislators and the public can refer back to the note after a program is established to see if it’s performing as expected.

PAC-MEN (AND WOMEN)
One passed bill clarified that any elected official is allowed to serve on political action committees, commonly the biggest spenders in elections. The bill added, however, a dash of sunshine to the practice by requiring elected officials to disclose on public documents if they serve in leadership positions in PACs. 

Additional reporting by Shelly Guillory

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