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 communications students covered the session. Here’s their summary of the Top 20 issues. 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.
2. Healthy Utah — Medicare Expansion
Gov. Gary Herbert ended the standoff on Medicaid expansion in Utah and named a blue-ribbon panel to come 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. Herbert charged the committee to craft legislation by July 31. The Legislature would be called into a special session to vote on a compromise at that before.
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 and one half cents for each gallon of gas.
4. Not wearing a seat belt could get drivers and passengers pulled over
Third time was the charm for Rep. Lee Perry’s seat belt law, which requires drivers and passengers to always wear seat belts.
HB79 passed the day before the 2015 legislative session ended. The bill 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 the Legislature. 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 will see a new set of rules for its beaches this summer, barring an executive veto of HB140.
The bill will make parallel travel legal again on sovereign lands around Bear Lake and will allow the general public to buy permits for the launch of 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 to be relocated from Draper to a more suitable location. The governor has come out in support of the plan.
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 return
The Utah Legislature has officially added the firing squad back to options available for Utah executions. HB11 allows 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 in the state, but the bill failed to pass the Utah 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.
11. Few public ed bills make it to governor’s desk
While many bills regarding education have been presented, few have made it to Gov. Gary Herbert’s desk this session.
One bill that passed the legislative branch is SB60, titled the American Civics Education Initiative. This bill requires the State Office of Education to create a citizenship tests that all high school students must take to graduate high school. The bill is designed to help promote civic engagement and knowledge; the test itself will be based on the United States Citizen Test.
HB203 also passed on the final day of the legislature, its purpose being to supplement the salary of Utah public teachers whose degrees and skill sets could make more money in the private sector. Degrees that qualify for salary supplementation include computer science, chemistry, physics, and general science.
The bill that has caused the most controversy at the end of the session in HB186. The bills calls for partisan elections of members of the State Board of Education. When the bill returned to the House for its concurring vote, representatives were disappointed and refused to concur with the Senate. Since the current system of electing board members has been struck down by a federal judge, the legislative body must provide a new solution.
As a result, a conference committee was appointed that features three legislators from both the House and the Senate to compromise on grievances held by each chamber; however, in the end it was impossible to get both chambers to concur on the conference committee’s report, which was ultimately rejected by the House.
12. Higher ed bills focus on college preparation
Most higher education bills involve better preparing students prior to college, helping them remain out of student loan debt, and assisting them in receiving their degrees more quickly.
One of the larger bills, HB01, the Higher Education Base Budget bill, was passed and signed by Gov. Gary Herbert on Feb. 25 in the 2015 Legislature. This bill will have a widespread impact as it appropriates $1.5 billion for the support and operation of Higher Education for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2015 and ending June 30, 2016. Dr. David L. Buhler, Commissioner of the State System of High Education said, “There are several means by which students have received financial help, but could we be doing more?” With the financial support and persistent guidance of the state, Utah students will be better prepared for their careers and will become more successful.
13. Improved rights for victims of sexual assault
HB277, sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, now allows any victim of child sexual assault the right to file a civil action against their offenders at any time, eliminating previous statutes of limitations for such scenarios. Ivory hopes that this bill will help those victims who take years to overcome the trauma of sexual assault and come forward.
“For someone to come forward and say my parent or my aunt and uncle or my family friend, to say that they engaged in horrific sexually abusive conduct, that takes a whole different level of courage and mobilization to come forward,” said Ivory.
HB252, sponsored by Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, modifies the definition of human trafficking and ensures that those who traffic children are guilty of a first degree felony. Both bills have passed through the House and Senate, and will become law upon approval from Gov. Herbert.
14. Only one air quality bill passes
Before the session began, the now annual Utah Air Quality Rally convened on the steps of the Capitol to raise awareness and to send a message to Utah legislators about the need for cleaner air in Utah.
Several bills on air quality were vetted this session, but HB226 was the only one to pass. This bill allows the Utah Division of Air Quality to create rules that are different from the federal standard if additional rules will protect the health and environment of Utah residents.
HB49 Clean Fuel School Buses and Infrastructure was tabled while on the 3rd reading calendar. It would have required state and charter schools to upgrade buses to a natural gas system as well as to build infrastructure to fuel them.
15. Public lands debate continues
The public lands debate transcends this session and will likely bleed into next session.
HB148 “Transfer of Public Lands Act” was signed by Governor Herbert back in 2012. Among other actions, it funded a report of the state’s ability to manage over 31.2 million acres of public lands currently maintained by the Federal Government. HB148 also gave the federal government an ultimatum: transfer the lands in question to the state by December 31, 2014 and respond to state demands, or the land will be seized by the state.The federal government did not respond and the state has yet to announce what legal actions will be taken.
A number of other bills were introduced this year, most notably SB105, Public Lands Act Amendments, sponsored by Sen. Jim Dabakis, D- Salt Lake City. This bill was intended to speed up the legal process by “requir(ing) the attorney general to file a petition in federal court by June 30 2016.” While also specifying what percentage (5%) net proceeds the state retains and what percentage net proceeds (95%) the state was to pay to the federal government as part of the transfer. The bill was shut down because of its fiscal impact.
16. Lawmakers decrease penalty for taking a weapon on transit
HB350, sponsored by Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, would have reduced the penalty for carrying a concealed weapon on public transportation from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Currently, it is a felony to carry an unpermitted weapon on or near public transportation and its stops. This bill would have lightened that penalty. Individuals with concealed carry weapons permits are free to have a concealed weapon on public transportation and were not included in the bill.
HB300 would make it so that under Utah law, objects cannot be considered a concealed or deadly weapon until someone has intent to use it as a weapon or it is part of a crime. It was sent to legislative research and general counsel.
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, expressed concern about the bill’s purpose. Thurston emphasized that currently possessing and concealing a weapon on public transportation is considered a felony, something that Thurston feels, “goes too far.”
UTA spokesman Remi Barron said in an email that UTA is neutral on the legislation. “Our system is one of the safest in the nation and we haven’t had any problems with weapons violations,” wrote Barron. “We don’t expect that to change.”
Monica Bellenger, co-founder of Utah Parents Against Gun Violence, said in an email statement that, “There are just some places within the larger community where guns are not appropriate.”
16. Legislating the great outdoors
HB108 would have allowed anglers to wade in Utah streams, so long as they remained below the high-water mark. The bill died in the House due to ongoing court action with a bill passed in 2010, which put restrictions on the use of public water through private property.
Controversial SB45 would have allowed the use of crossbows during an archery hunt, allowing hunters to shoot at greater distances with more precise aim. It never made it out of the Senate.
A bill that will enforce an aquatic invasive species fee on certain motorboats and sailboats was passed. The fees outlined in SB89 will be put towards funding to prevent the spread of Quagga mussels–destroy plankton and alter aquatic food webs and endangering native species.
HB238 License Plate Obstruction Amendments was passed, exempting certain devices such as bicycles and ski-racks from obscuring license plate visibility, so long as the license is installed according to manufacturer specifications.
17. Rural law changes cover everything from water to grazing
The legislation and legislators were guided by discussions in the weekly Rural Caucus, or Cowboy Caucus. The Cowboy Caucus met every Friday morning at 7 a.m. to discuss issues and hear from constituents. Even though there are relatively few legislatures who represent rural Utah, many urban lawmakers came together to help pass issues for rural Utah.
The hard work of the legislators resulted in many laws and amendments to current code. Some amendments were implemented in water law, energy zones, coal ash regulations, oil, gas, and mining, agricultural tourism, livestock branding, and grazing. Some of the new programs include high cost infrastructure tax credits, survey marker replacements, tourist-oriented signing, and rural physician loan repayment.
Transfer of public lands was a major issue during this session. Rep. Michael Noel, R-Kanab, drafted a bill to address this issue, but because it was so complex, the governor’s office suggested moving the bill to interim committee.
18. Stair Fairpark loses RLS soccer deal
The State Fairpark was subject of great scrutiny and minimal action on the part of the Utah Legislature. The State Fair Corp., led by Roger Beattie and Mike Steele, struck a deal with owners of Real Salt Lake professional soccer club, who agreed to build a $23 million complex for RSL’s minor league team. However, RSL pulled the deal because the state failed to renew the lease that keeps the fair at the fairgrounds.
The legislature made no official actions to renew the lease because the Department of Facilities and Construction Management, the governing body in charge of the State Fairpark Grounds, was authorized to renew the arrangement in 2010. Legislators blame the missed opportunity on the DFCM and the governor.
Sen. Scott Jenkins, R- Plain City, and Rep. Justin Miller, D- Salt Lake City, did make motions for an unofficial working group to examine the RSL deal. They found no issue with the actions of the Corp., but failed to take additional action.The State Fair Corp. was given $675,000 as a one-time deal, money barely able to cover annual operations.
The only other legislation considered for the State Fair was HB430, which establishes a process for sublease of fair park property.
19.Bills change rules for youth
Throughout the 2015 Utah State Legislature session there have been many bills discussed on the behalf of the state’s youth.
HB139 gave foster children in sibling groups an increased possibility of staying with their siblings by increasing the number of children allowed in foster homes to a maximum of five. It is very common for sibling groups to be split up among different homes upon being taken away from their parents. This bill also opens the door for older children to be placed with their younger siblings instead of being placed in group homes or other alternative living placements.
Although that bill opens up new possibilities for youth, HB131 called for the barring of youth’s access to smoke shops. During the bill’s discussion a story was told about a middle school student who ran his own electronic cigarette rental start-up business and was “making bank”. Thus, this bill was an attempt to keep youth from accessing electronic cigarettes.
HB143 was another restricting law. If it had been passed, it would have made it unlawful for a person to give a minor of at least 14 years of age a tattoo without direct consent of the parent or guardian and completely illegal for anyone under that age. This law even included restrictions concerning body piercing. As the bill did not pass, the law currently stands that parental consent is still necessary but does not put a limit on the age of the minor nor restricts body piercing.
Although some bills did go unpassed SB167 passed quickly through the House on the final day of the legislature, giving minors charged with felonies the right to waive counsel after proper consultation with a defense attorney and a confirmation by the court affirming that he or she understands the consequences of waiving their right to counsel. That right had been previously reserved for adults facing sentencing.
20. School board elections issue unresolved
A bill to modify elections for members of school boards in the State of Utah failed to receive a final go ahead. Disagreements over HB186, which had passed both the Senate and the House in previous iterations, went unresolved as the 2015 legislative session came to an end.
The bill, which would have provided for partisan elections of school board candidates and the option of appointment subject to a constitutional amendment, would also remove non-voting members and modify reporting requirements.
Contributors: Madeleine Lewis, Christopher Larson, Cassidy Hansen, Gabriel Gledhill, Christopher Filanc-Gustafson, Blakely Gull, Caleb Larkin, William Glade, Makenzie Wistisen, Troy Cressman, Melissa Cowling, Abigail Norton, John Gibbons, Shauntel Forte, Aaron Hastings, and Michael A.Kruse.