Utah lawmakers ended their annual 45-day legislative session on Thursday, March 12, with hundreds of bills waiting for Gov. Gary Herbert’s signature. Some 22 BYU Daily Universe student reporters covered the session. Here’s their summary of the top 10 issues for the BYU audience. Get a more in-depth view of the entire legislative session at Capital West News.
1. Anti-discrimination and religious liberty victory
The anti-discrimination and religious liberties bill, along with another religious liberty protection bill, was passed in an agreement that seemed impossible two months ago.
SB296, on anti-discrimination and religious liberties, and SB297, on more religious protections, are unofficially companion bills that represent a groundbreaking compromise between opposing sides. Together these bills should extend equal employment and housing rights to all, while protecting the religious freedoms Utahns hold so dear.
“The beauty of this session is we’re having these difficult conversations together. This session has truly been a game changer, and we see this as a positive trend for the future,” said Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams.
The LDS Church applauded the passage of SB296 and posted an explanatory note about its support of the two bills on Mormon Newsroom‘s site.
2. Healthy Utah — Medicare Expansion
Gov. Gary Herbert ended the standoff on Medicaid expansion in Utah and named a blue-ribbon panel to resolve differences by the end of July. Senate and House versions of bills designed to “close the gap” in Medicaid stood apart as lawmakers moved into the waning hours of the 2015 Legislature.
Herbert introduced the new joint committee that will meet once the session is over. A concurrent resolution will be passed in both bodies later Monday, March 16. Herbert charged the committee to craft legislation by July 31. The Legislature could be called into a special session to vote on a compromise at that point.
3. Gas tax hike
Utah residents will pay more for gas at the pumps. A compromise deal will raise the gas tax 5 cents at the pump to 29.5 cents for each gallon of gas.
4. Not wearing a seat belt could get drivers and passengers pulled over
The third time was the charm for Rep. Lee Perry’s seat belt law, which requires drivers and passengers to always wear seat belts.
HB79 will make not wearing a seatbelt a primary offense, and state and local authorities may issue citations for violations. The bill does specify that a ticket may only be given to those with previous warnings for not wearing a seatbelt, and the fee can be waived by taking a 30-minute course online.
5. Cell phone use in cars is still against the law
A bill that would have loosened rules on texting and driving using hands-free devices failed to pass. Hazardous or not, HB63 would have amended the current complete prohibition on using a cell phone while behind the wheel.
Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, and Rep. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, wanted to legalize these devices for emergency situations and in cases of hands-free control such as bluetooth or voice-controlled GPS.
6. Bear Lake becomes more accessible
Bear Lake could see a new set of rules for its beaches this summer, barring the governor’s approval of HB140.
The bill will make parallel travel legal again on sovereign lands around Bear Lake and will allow the general public the ability to buy launch permits so they can launch water crafts from the beach.
This has been one of the most controversial bills Rep. R. Curt Webb, R-Logan, has ever run during his tenure as a legislator. Many people were concerned with the parallel travel and the safety implications it could have for beach-goers.
The Legislature passed a master plan for a new prison, and the governor agreed that the prison be relocated from Draper to a more suitable location.
The Prison Relocation Commission finalized its list of potential sites in February. The list includes an expanded site near I-80 and 7200 West in Salt Lake County, an industrial park near I-80 in Tooele County, a site near Fairfield in Utah County, a site near Eagle Mountain in Utah County and a site near Grantsville in Tooele County.
8. Firing squad returns
The Utah Legislature has officially added the firing squad back to options available for Utah executions. HB11 prescribes the death penalty to be carried out by the firing squad if substances are not available to carry out the death penalty by lethal injection.
Utah will be one of the only states in the country to use firing squads if the governor decides to sign the bill.
9. Medical marijuana fails
Medical cannabis amendments sponsored by Sen. Mark B. Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, aimed to legalize medical marijuana but failed to pass the Legislature. “There are people who are being denied relief and treatment because of public policy,” Madsen said.
10. Effort to undo primary elections dies
Republican loyalists fought last year’s Count My Vote compromise bill SB54 but failed on all four fronts.
Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, sponsored SB43, which directly sought to undue the open primaries mandated by a 2014 legislative compromise, but the bill died in the senate, 9-19-1.
HB281, sponsored by Rep. Fred Cox, R- West Valley, would have delayed Count My Vote by keeping the 2016 election under the pre-SB54 code. It died in its first committee hearing.
Contributors: Madeleine Lewis, Christopher Larson, Gabriel Gledhill, Christopher Filanc-Gustafson, Blakely Gull, Caleb Larkin, William Glade, Makenzie Wistisen and Michael A.Kruse.