Though the 2015 legislative session is three months away, and November’s election will no doubt shake up the House and Senate, lawmakers have begun to submit bills they hope will become law during the upcoming legislative session.
Many of the proposals are little more than a title at this point, but unlike some other states (and Congress) Utah law requires that the bill titles be germane to their content. By examining those titles, and comparing them to the longstanding debates and campaign pledges on Capitol Hill, we’re starting to get a pretty clear idea of what the 2015 session is going to look like.
This is the first of a three part series. Tomorrow we will discuss proposed legislation regarding alcohol, the economy, and crime, and on Thursday we will introduce you to bills concerning education, public health and safety, and taxes.
Civil Liberties and Marriage
Perhaps the number one agenda item for the 45 days of the legislative session will be to adapt and modify state law to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision to let the ruling allowing same-sex couples equal access to same-sex civil marriages stand. Several existing Utah laws and statutes have were written either with an overt or subtle barring of marriage and marriage-related matters for those couples, and with the new legal reality they will need to be altered. Whether that means simple verbiage changes to comply with the judicial rulings, or whether some factions of the legislature will seek to “strike back” against the same-sex couples remains to be seen.
Representative Kraig Powell (Republican – Heber) was one of the first lawmakers to come out on the topic when, earlier this month, he raised eyebrows when he suggested that perhaps the state should coin a new name for marriage for same-sex couples, such as “pairage.” After heavy national ridicule, Powell has stepped away from that suggestion.
Also in the days and weeks following the Supreme Court’s decision, some of the more social conservative-aligned members of the House have begun to float the idea of running a model bill by the national group Alliance Defending Freedom, which would exempt government officials and businesses from civil rights laws.
Representative Jacob Anderegg (Republican – Lehi) has said he intends to run legislation that would allow government officials (such as county clerks and judges) to refuse civil marriage licenses to same-sex couples if they claim that doing so would is against their personal religious beliefs. Presumably, if the bill follows the proposals put forward in other states, it would also allow business owners to refuse service to LGBTQ customers for the same reason. The legislation could face some strong kickback, however, from both the religious and the racial minority communities, who say that creating such exemptions opens the door for an Evangelical business owner to theoretically fire all Mormons, or a White business owner to fire all Black employees under the broad definitions of the proposal. Researchers have also argued that while religious freedom protects individuals and religions, businesses (such as restaurants or car dealerships) and the government can not be allowed to discriminate.
Senator Steve Urquhart (Republican – St. George) is also returning with his statewide non-discrimination law, aptly named “Antidiscrimination Amendments.” Last year, Urquhart’s bill was put on ice after the landmark Shelby decision. Senate President Wayne Niederhauser (Republican – Sandy) cited concern that discussion of the bill (and the presumed anti-gay statements that would be raised by some lawmakers) could potentially compromise the state’s case in federal court by showing animus against a class of people by the government. Now that the case on same-sex marriage has been settled, Urquhart may have an easier time pushing the bill that would ban mid to large-sized employers and apartment complex owners from denying jobs or housing to individuals solely because they are gay or transgender.
Of course, there is also the ever pressing issue for the Wasatch Front: air quality and the environment.
Representative Becky Edwards (Republican – North Salt Lake) has submitted a bill file entitled “Air Quality Revisions,” a title that mirrors legislation she abandoned last year. If the content of this proposed legislation is similar to what it was in the 2014 session, Edwards will be working to allow the state to increase clean air standards to go above and beyond federal minimum standards. As Utah Political Capitol pointed out earlier this year, few people know that state law expressly prohibits clean air standards above this minimum.
Republican Representative Steven Handy (Republican – Layton) is once again attempting to push “Clean Fuel Amendments and Rebates,” a bill he abandoned last year before ever presenting it to the public. Will this legislation follow also attempt to clear the air? We will wait and see.
Representative Powell also seems to be continuing his question on how the state regulates campaign finances, and has two bill files open on the subject. Last year, Powell proposed the creation of a database of lobbyists and their campaign contributions as well as a ban on anonymous contributions above $50—both were soundly rejected.
Democrat Brian King (Salt Lake City), appears to be also be pressing forward on legislation that would propose caps on campaign contributions. As Utah Political Capitol pointed out earlier this month, King was met with resistance last year when he attempted to limit the amount individuals can contribute to statewide races to $10,000 each, and $5,000 for legislative races. The veteran lawmaker doesn’t appear to be done with the fight though, and has opened a bill entitled “Campaign Finance Amendments” once again.
Representative Dan McCay (Republican – Riverton) has the intriguingly titled “Candidate Fundraising Amendments.” McCay has not been very involved with election-related legislation in the past, with the notable exception of the successful SB 54 last year—where was the House sponsor of the controversial legislation that altered the candidate nomination process for Utah during the Count My Vote Debate. We’ll have to wait and see what his intriguing-yet-vague bill title has in store this year.
The issue of voter access and eligibility has been a consistent issue on the hill over the years—specifically with so-called “Voter ID” laws which require additional identification in order to be able to vote. Conservatives argue that the extra requirements are necessary to protect against voter fraud, while Democrats and moderates point out that there are almost no documented cases of voter fraud occurring, and that putting burdensome requirements on voting make it harder (specifically for the elderly, the young, and the poor) for eligible voters to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Representative Curt Webb (Republican – Logan) has opened a bill file called “Voter Eligibility Amendments.” We don’t yet know what it contains, but it could very well be worth watching in January.
“Initiative and Referendum Petition Amendments” may prove to be an interesting bill Senator Margaret Dayton (Republican – Orem). Last year, Dayton was the Senate sponsor for the successful HB 192, which required initiatives and referendums add a statement to all petition signature sheets that explicitly says that anyone signing the petition understands the law the petitioner is trying to implement or overturn. This bill was seen as having a cooling effect on the signature gathering process (one that is already difficult), and a reaction to the Count My Vote initiative.