SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s House speaker told representatives to focus on political courage and cooperation as they and their Senate colleagues opened the 45-day legislative session on Utah’s Capitol with pomp and speech making.
Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, cited heroes like the Spartan King Leonidas and the Revolutionary War spy Hercules Mulligan as examples for the type of the bravery he expected from the Utah House of Representatives.
“This is game day,” Hughes said in the opening moments of his speech.
He recognized the accomplishments of the 2015 legislative session and the efforts made to achieve better results in such fields as education and transportation infrastructure for the state. Hughes described the previous year’s session as the “Super Bowl/World Series of state legislature,” in describing the effort of his colleagues. Hughes expects similar enthusiasm and effort in the session to come.
Elder Gary E. Stevenson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offered the opening prayer after a moment of silence for Unified Police Officer Doug Barney who was killed in the line of duty on Jan. 17, 2016 and was buried Monday in Orem. The Calvary Baptist Church’s gospel choir belted out the national anthem and “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and the U.S. and Utah flags were posted before lawmakers moved to an official roll call and started business.
Some 75 representatives in Utah’s House and 29 state senators in the Senate will discuss and debate hundreds of bills through March 10 in state’s grand exercise in democracy. This year marks the 120th since Utah was admitted into the Union as a state and the 100th anniversary of the Utah’s grand statehouse. The state’s part-time citizen legislators — who also double as attorneys, accountants, educators, homemakers, ranchers, doctors and real estate agents the rest of the year — are set to work at breakneck speed for about seven weeks to consider state policy and spend millions of tax dollars. The bills will then land on the desk of Gov. Gary Herbert for signature or veto.
In one of the most red states in the country, Republicans hold a supermajority in both chambers and conservative politics will rule the day on most votes. Along with their Republican pedigree, a majority of lawmakers hold one or more degrees from BYU.
As it does nearly every session, education is at the top of the list as the state sees some surplus tax funds from a growing economy and population. Other big items on the agenda range include public lands, guns, human trafficking, medical marijuana and election reform.
Herbert said education is the No. 1 issue for this year’s Legislature. Speaking at his monthly news conference on Jan. 21, Herbert noted the 160 new education bills as evidence of Utah’s commitment to education, and touted a nine percent improvement in the graduation rate for Utah’s public schools in the last year.
Herbert emphasized the importance of measures to protect the environment. He is interested in improving air quality, reducing pollutants and promoting water resource management. Though Herbert cited reductions in pollutants he received some criticism for his stance on climate change, to which he clarified that he sees the need to have an open and scientific debate on the matter and determine mankind’s actual impact on the environment.
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, is supporting legislation that will revise the law concerning human trafficking of a child. If this revision passes, believing a victim to be over 18 will no longer serve as a defense in trial.
Another Utah lawmaker, Rep. Jack Draxler, R-Logan, wants to change Utah’s Sex Offender Registry to allow those who have been charged with lesser crimes, such as voyeurism or “enticing a minor,” to be dropped from the state’s Sex Offender Registry after five years.
Two bills are moving forward to legalize medical marijuana or cannabidoil to help those with epilepsy and other debilitating diseases. Lawmakers say the extract of the plant can help and they shouldn’t get in the way of Utahns gaining access to it. At the same time, lawmakers want to still ban whole-plant marijuana and its sale for recreational drug use.
At least two bills are poised to change how the state controls e-cigarettes while Utah Health Department regulators said they will continue to work with representatives of the so-called “vaping industry” to create fair rules they say are designed to protect children.
An Orem lawmaker continues to push measures that regulate payday lending firms by filing a bill that would create a database to keep track of the number of loans held by borrowers. Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, said he will reintroduce a bill in an effort to cap the number of deferred deposit loans a person can have at a time. In both 2011 and 2012, Daw tried to pass similar bills but was unsuccessful when he said the payday lending industry set up a smear campaign against him which cost him re-election.
Two of Utah’s members of Congress, Utah Republican Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, said they will introduce legislation in the U.S. House that would greater define how public lands are managed in Utah. The bill comes in hopes to prevent the Obama administration from designating a large national monument in eastern Utah, which would protect the land and also prevent developments such as mining.
Guns on buses
Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, is sponsoring HB67 to allow weapons on public transportation. The law says, “A person who boards a bus with a concealed dangerous weapon or firearm upon his person or effects is guilty of a third-degree felony.” Thurston said the same standards that apply in other public areas should apply on public transit.
Utah’s election system is changing with ballot access law SB54 enacted 2015 Legislature. Recently, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox clarified how his office will enforce the law, known as Count My Vote, by issuing a memo to candidates in the current election cycle. Specifically, the memo said the Republican Party and its candidates will have access to the ballot as long as the party maintains the standards for a qualified political party set by SB54.
Straight party ballots
Lawmakers may debate straight-ticket voting, which currently allows Utah voters to choose a party’s entire slate of candidates with a single ballot vote. Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, is sponsoring HB119, a bill that would require voters to mark all candidates separately on any given ballot, even if each of their chosen candidates are from the same political party. She says the system is outdated.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, is considering legislation to end the regulation of hunting guides. As with many occupations, hunting guides and outfitters require licensing. Hunting licenses are only required however for public land hunts and not for private. Stephenson questioned whether the regulation is even necessary for the industry.
Contributing to this article are David Boyle, Chris Larson, Lauren Hanson, Caitlin Thomas, Samantha Clark and Kalli White. To see complete coverage of more details on this legislation, go to universe.byu.edu/capital-west-news.