Lawmakers tackle decisive issues in 2014 legislative session

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Photo by Sarah Hill
Photo by Sarah Hill

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s legislature will convene on Jan. 27 to face a stressful 45-day session filled with hearings, debates, negotiations and compromises.

Over the course of this session, they will create or adjust laws that touch on just about every aspect of Utahns’ lives. Lawmakers are expected to discuss everything from the controversy over same-sex marriage to the speed limits on roads to how much Utahns will pay at the gas pump.

Adam Brown, a BYU political science professor who directs about 30 student interns who work with lawmakers, said most Utah residents take for granted the amount of work Utah lawmakers accomplish in not even seven weeks.

“Most of our country’s real governing does not happen in Washington, D.C. Utah’s legislature alone passes twice as many laws per year as Congress,” Brown said. In 2013, legislators proposed nearly 900 bills and resolutions. Some 58 percent of bills passed and were sent to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.

Utah’s part-time bicameral legislature includes 75 members of the House of Representatives and 29 Senate members. They come from all walks of life and all parts of the state, but a large chunk of the lawmakers hold bachelor’s and advanced degrees from BYU.

Former Rep. Derek Brown, a BYU adjunct professor who now heads U.S. Sen. Mike Lee’s Utah office, recently told a group of BYU students that lawmakers can be realtors, insurance agents, school administrators, school bus drivers, lawyers and stay-at-home moms.

Utah County, the second most populous county in the state, has 14 total representative and senators. The Speaker of the House, Becky Lockhart, is Utah’s first female House leader. She earned a nursing degree from BYU, and her district includes a section of South Provo.

Here are four issues slated to be discussed that may impact BYU students, faculty and staff.

Same-sex marriage
A Utah County state representative has drafted two bills that would seek to protect religious rights of marriage in the wake of federal Judge Robert J. Shelby’s overturning of the Utah Constitution’s Third Amendment. Shelby recently ruled the amendment, which specifies that “marriage consists only of the legal union between a man and a woman,” unconstitutional.

Since that time, the U.S. Supreme Court has granted a stay temporarily preventing any further marriages in the state until the case is heard by an appellate court. About 1,000 same-sex couples were married in Utah before the high court granted the stay.

Rep. Dean Sanpei, R-Provo, said the Amendment 3 ruling was “inordinately frustrating to watch, and I’m sure the frustration is felt among many of my colleagues.”

Rep. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, is seeking to protect religious rights through HB231. This bill states “that a member of the clergy is not required to solemnize a marriage that violates the member’s religious belief system.”

Along with HB231, Anderegg is sponsoring a house joint resolution, HJR1, which seeks to amend the Utah Constitution putting into effect similar changes to prevent a person from being “compelled to solemnize, officiate in, or recognize a marriage … in violation of their right of conscience or their free exercise of religion.”

Currently the Utah Amendment 3 case is in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where it is waiting to be heard. House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo, expects the appeal to proceed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“What that means to (Utah residents) is that (it will) cost money,” Lockhart said. “It’s in the state’s best interest. If you want to defend the Amendment, to get the very best (attorneys) and that kind of specialized knowledge and specialized skill, we have to find that outside of our regular attorneys.”

 — Bryan Pearson

Increasing speed limits
The idea of increasing speed limits on parts of Utah freeways has been discussed for the last five years, and in the 2014 session lawmakers are pushing to add even more miles of freeway with higher speed limits. In the 2013 legislative session, lawmakers passed HB83, allowing the Utah Department of Transportation to raise the speed limit on I-15 and I-80 to 80 mph in select “test zones.” These zones expanded from Santaquin to St. George, Mansfield to Wendover and Brigham City to the Idaho border. Engineering analyses and crash data reported the higher speed limits did not increase accidents, illegal speeding or fatalities, according to UDOT. People generally travel at the faster speed already, but in these locations they can do so legally.“People have a built-in maximum speed that they feel comfortable driving. The net affect of this (change) is that people can drive 80 mph legally,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville.BYU student Kasey Mortensen, 20, agreed. “I already go 80. And if the speed limit was 80, I would feel way more comfortable and safe driving. Plus I wouldn’t have to push my speed over that,” Mortensen said.Dunnigan, who expects the bill to pass, additionally advocated for higher speeds beause it aids Utah’s air quality.“We have data on diesel trucks that shows that if they do travel quicker and get to their destinations quicker they actually pollute the air less because they are on the road less,” Dunnigan said. “If they can get to their destination half an hour or an hour early by increasing their speed by five miles per hour, they aren’t polluting the air for that time.”

If the bill passes, motorists will have to wait to find out where UDOT will post higher speed limits. That decision is based on methodical planning and tested engineering science.

 — Jenna Neeley

Anti-discrimination
Senator Stephen Urquhart wants to expand non-discrimination rights that are only granted in a handful of cities.The Senate will introduce a bill during the legislative session that would protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in situations involving housing and employment. The bill, SB100, will specifically amend the Utah Antidiscrimination Act and the Utah Fair Housing Act to include these protections. A similar ordinance has already been supported by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and passed in Salt Lake City.

However, the recent Amendment 3 court decision regarding same-sex marriage fuels the conservative “slippery slope” arguments that non-discrimination rights lead to unintended consequences. At least one Utah County legislator, Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, says this bill violates his property and private business rights.

“Is a person’s right to live in a particular place or work in a particular place more important than your right as a property owner or a business owner?” Greene said.

If the reaction of this Utah County legislator and many others is any indication, SB100 faces an uphill battle in the House.

This will be the second time Urquhart will be championing this piece of legislation and facing this battle. Urquhart proposed a similar bill, SB262, during the legislature’s 2013 general session alongside his co-sponsor, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake, an openly gay supporter of the LGBT community and chair of the Utah Democratic Party. Their bill only narrowly passed out of the first Senate committee last year and then died when it came to a full Senate vote.

Because of this opposition, it is unclear if this year’s bill will have any hope of passing the second time around.

 — Mallory Jesperson

A worker at Hot Dog on a Stick who could be affected by the proposed raised minimum wage. Photo by Sarah Hill
A worker at Hot Dog on a Stick who could be affected by the proposed raised minimum wage. (Photo by Sarah Hill)

Minimum wage
Dabakis is proposing Utah’s minimum wage be raised to $10 an hour, a raise that would send Utah to the top of the country in minimum wage pay, 68 cents more than the current leader, Washington state, where the minimum wage is $9.32 an hour.

“People are making $1,200 dollars a month gross income, and we expect them to live on that,” Dabakis said. “Raising the minimum wage isn’t going to hurt our society, and it isn’t going to hurt our culture, and it certainly is not going to hurt our economy. It will make a dramatic impact on the lives of a lot of our people who are having the toughest time and working the hardest in a lot of ways.”

The debate on minimum wage has received increasing attention with President Barack Obama’s announcement that he would support a bill presented by Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Democratic House member George Miller from California, taking the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour.

According to Val Hale, president and CEO of the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce, the largest employers in Utah County are Brigham Young University, Intermountain Healthcare, Vivint, Utah Valley University and Alpine School District. A raise in minimum wage could potentially have a large impact across the BYU campus.

“A change in the minimum wage would certainly affect the entire campus community,” said Todd Hollingshead, BYU spokesperson. “However, given the uncertainty of what may or may not happen in the Legislature, we couldn’t speculate at this point as to what that impact would be.”

In a 2013 study by the Public Religion Research Institute, 71 percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage from the federally mandated $7.25 an hour to $10 an hour. The support, however, varies greatly depending on party lines. Democrats pull the most support, with 89 percent saying they would support the raise, while 68 percent of Independents support the raise and 57 percent of Republicans are in favor, whereas only 42 percent of those in the Tea Party would support a raise.

Dabakis also mentioned that the raise in minimum wage should coincide with a proposal to raise the salary of governor Gary Herbert.

“There’s a proposal to raise the governor’s salary by 39.8 percent, so this proposal would allow the governor to get his pay increase, if the Legislature increases the minimum wage to $10,” Dabakis said.

Dabakis currently serves as the chairman of the Utah Democratic Party and was elected a Utah Senator in December 2012.

— Spencer Wright

Follow #byuleg for updates on the Utah legislative session and watch universe.byu.edu

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