2017 Legislative Review: Drugs, Education, Elections

View other reviews in this series:


  • HB 50 – Opioid Prescribing Regulations from Representative Ray Ward (Republican – Bountiful)
    • If you have been paying attention to public service announcements over the past year (and who doesn’t, right), you will know that there has been an effort to address opioid use and abuse – why? Because a Utahn dies roughly once every three days from illicit opioids such as heroin and roughly once a day due to prescription opioids – which can often become a gateway to such harder drugs. Indeed, Utah is ranked 7th in the nation for drug overdose deaths. This legislative session lawmakers continued their efforts to address the problem, and perhaps the most direct attempt to prevent prescription drug abuse can be found in HB 50. Sponsored by Representative Ward, a family doctor, and Senator Evan Vickers (Republican – Cedar City), a pharmacist, the legislation seeks to make doctors and patients more aware of the amount of drugs being prescribed.  The bill requires that, though a doctor could prescribe any amount of drugs they feel is appropriate for acute pain (say a pulled tooth or broken arm), the pharmacy will only fill in seven-day quantities. It is hoped that this will make doctors take a more active role in dosing and spot potential problems before they arise. It is worth noting that the bill does not put the same restrictions on acute pain arising from major surgeries or for those suffering from chronic pain.
    • Effect on Budget: -$2,200 annually
    • Effective Date: Standard effective date – May 9, 2017
    • Final House vote: 67-5. Final Senate vote: 28-0
  • HB 130 – Cannabinoid Research from Representative Brad Daw (Republican – Orem)
    • Far from the sweeping medical cannabis legislation the state discussed over the past few years, HB 130 starts up the process of citizens accessing the drug in a much more measured and slow process that some supporters consider a step in the right direction while others feel that it does little more than ensuring that no further action will take place on the issue any time soon. The bill would allow a person to legally possess medical cannabis if they are participating in board-approved study (in practical terms, most likely originating from the University of Utah) and would allow those conducting these studies to import the drug into the state for research. The legislation also creates the Cannabinoid Product Board within the Department of Health, which is charged with reviewing any available research related to the use of cannabinoid products for medical conditions.
    • Effect on Budget: -$20,600 annually
    • Effective Date: Immediate upon governor’s signature
    • Final House vote: 72-0. Final Senate vote: 27-1
  • SB 211 – Cannabinoid Product Act from Senator Evan Vickers (Republican – Cedar City)
    • SB 211 would have provided rules around the growing, production, possession, use, and sale of cannabis and cannabis related products to those authorized by the state to do so. The legislation was more of a theoretical bill that set up the framework for how the state would handle legal cannabis within the state (though it could work for full legalization, don’t hold your breath, the lawmakers only had medicinal use in mind). The bill would have required electronic tracking from seed to consumer as it goes through growers, processors, distributors, and dispensers. It also charged several departments within Utah to address various rulemaking activities: The Department of Agriculture and Food to create rules around the growing of products, the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing to create rules around dispensers, the Department of Financial Institutions to create rules about how to handle the banking of funds received through the selling of a product that is still illegal at a federal level, and the Department of Health to issue cannabinoid cards to those the state feels can take advantage of the program. It is also worth noting that the bill would have taxed the final product at 5.77 percent and stated that the state couldn’t discriminate against those authorized by the Department of Health when it comes to child custody issues.
    • Final Senate vote: 27-0


  • HB 212 – Incentive for Effective Teachers in High Poverty Schools from Representative Mike Winder (Republican – West Valley City)
    • Though the state did provide an overall 4 percent funding boost to the weighted pupil unit (a general measure of funds provided per student), freshman lawmaker and former West Vally City Mayor, Mike Winder, proposed a more localized solution in Utah’s high poverty schools. HB 212 sets aside $250,000 annually to provide $5,000 bonuses to teachers who demonstrate that they can improve test scores among students who are in impoverished schools where the likelihood of intergenerational poverty is high. Though few could argue that increasing teacher pay is one of several steps that are needed to improve schools in Utah, lawmakers wondered if this approach was best, noting that the only true way to measure advancement was through the state’s increasingly controversial SAGE tests – which parents can opt out of and that this setup will only perpetuate concerns that teachers will only “teach to the test.”
    • Effect on Budget: -$250,000 annually
    • Effective Date: Standard effective date – May 9, 2017
    • Final House vote: 52-21. Final Senate vote: 24-0
  • HB 241 – School Accountability and Assessment Amendments from Representative Marie Poulson (Democrat – Salt Lake City)
    • A few years ago, the legislature passed a law that would provide traditional letter grades to schools based on factors such as graduation rates, performance, and attendance. Though the legislation was an immediate source of controversy, lawmakers pushed it through. One year later, lawmakers who supported the law discovered that the schools in their districts were receiving D’s and F’s, the law was quickly revamped – and it raised questions as to the true purpose of the law and what it was designed to accomplish. Representative Poulson formally called for the end of this policy with HB 241, arguing that all the law does is demoralize students, parents, teachers, and administrators while providing no policy solutions to correcting the situation (the original law was based off of a similar law in Florida, however failing schools were given additional resources – something not in the Utah policy). Though the bill received bipartisan support in the House, it was doomed once it hit the Senate, considering that the Senate President proposed the original bill a few years back.
    • Final House vote: 54-18.
  • SB 161 – Bullying and Hazing Amendments from Senator Luz Escamilla (Democrat – Salt Lake City)
    • In 2008 the state enacted anti-bullying legislation designed to provide tools to school districts, teachers, parents, and students with resources to address bullying in school. Times have continued to change, however, and Senator Escamilla felt it was time to update the statute to more accurately define cyber-bullying and hazing to the state law. The legislation requires school districts to update their bullying policies to address these issues within their district and within schools to help prevent and respond to physical and digital harassment between students and also requires parents to acknowledge that they have received a copy of the policy. Some lawmakers were skeptical that the change will create an undue burden on administrators.
    • Effect on Budget: $0
    • Effective Date: Standard effective date – May 9, 2017
    • Final Senate vote: 21-1. Final House vote: 55-16.


  • HB 159 – Amendments to Voter Registration from Representative from Steve Handy (Republican – Layton)
    • Currently, anyone who goes to a DMV to get a drivers license or state ID is given the option on their form to register to vote. Since proof of citizenship and current address is a requirement to get such documents in the first place, it only makes sense that the state provide you the option to check off the first step in performing your civic duty. But, this program is “opt-in,” meaning that the citizen has to proactively decide they want to register to vote. If they update their address online or simply forget to check the box, that individual will have to register using a separate form or, if they are lucky enough to live in a county that has same-day voter registration, take the time to fill out the voter registration form before being able to vote. Keep in mind that Utah has traditionally had low voter turnout, and to that end, many are looking for ways to remove barriers to voting. Handy, with HB 159, would have made every legally eligible voter an actual voter when they signed up for a new drivers license or state ID, and changing the box to an “opt-out” wherein people have to specifically choose not to be registered to vote. Though this bill wouldn’t have covered all of the possible voting population, it certainly would have made it easier for many to vote in the first place by taking away concerns that one isn’t registered.
    • Final House vote: 40-28.
  • HB 204 – Presidential Primary Amendments from Representative Patrice Arent (Democrat – Salt Lake City)
    • Roughly a year ago, many citizens were literally left out in the cold as Republicans and Democrats alike were left standing in the freshly fallen snow, waiting to vote in their respective presidential primaries. It soon became clear that, though it was certainly a primary that many were inherently interested in participating in, there was a real structural problem with too few locations for too many people. The reason? Whereas the state had traditionally provided funds to the Utah Democratic and Republican Parties, they pulled their funding for presidential primaries prior to 2016 – leaving parties to foot the entire bill, a resource neither party could adequately provide. To combat this, Representative Arent attempted to pass legislation that would set aside $750,000 in state funds a year for four years to ensure that parties could afford to hold their primaries, using the argument that it is in the state’s interest to encourage civic engagement. Though the bill was successful, this amount was reduced dramatically, setting aside $100,000 a year instead.
    • Effect on Budget: – $100,000
    • Effective Date: Standard effective date – May 9, 2017
    • Final House vote: 67-3. Final Senate vote: 25-1.
  • HB 349 – Ranked Choice Voting from Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck (Democrat – Salt Lake City)
    • Ranked choice voting, also called “instant run-off” voting is a relatively new concept in American democracy, however, it has has been employed by many countries over the years because it is seen as a way to increase satisfaction with how elected officials are chosen. As you know, currently the person that receives the most votes is declared the winner of an election, regardless of there being one, two, or 20 people on the ballot. This process means that, in theory, someone could win an election even though they were the least popular. Ranked choice voting eliminates this problem because it puts into place a system wherein people rank who they want to win on a ballot: their first choice comes first, second comes second, and so on. For simplicity sake, assume there are three people for one position; under ranked choice, the person who got the least amount of “first choice” votes would be eliminated, and all of their “second choice” votes would be added to the pool, whoever received the fewest first plus second choice votes would be eliminated and the victor would be crowned. The legislation had legs this session, but an amendment in committee caused the bill to stall out in the Senate.
    • Final House vote: 59-12.
  • HB 255 – Initiative Amendments from Representative Dan McCay (Republican – Riverton)
    • Lawmakers are not exactly subtle in their dislike for the initiative process, and consistently make the process more and more difficult if a group threatens or is actually successful in their petition drive. The most recent threat to the legislature’s power has come from the well funded Our Schools Now group who, during the 2017 session, threatened (and appear to be moving forward with) a petition to raise income taxes by 7/8ths of a percent in order to infuse $750 million into public schools. In what is sure to be a coincidence, McCay’s legislation would require that when an initiative proposes a tax increase, the petition must state the current tax rate, rate the percentage would change to, and the percent the tax would increase. Why does this matter? Suppose the current rate is 5 percent and you were looking to increase the rate by one percent. In one scenario the petitioner would simply have to state that they were increasing taxes by one percent – under McCay’s law, they would also have to state that they are increasing taxes by 20 percent. Both statements are true, but one is far more likely to deter a petitioner from actually signing.
    • Effect on Budget: $0
    • Effective Date: Standard effective date – May 9, 2017
    • Final House vote: 55-16. Final Senate vote: 20-7.
  • HJR 1 – Joint Resolution on Redistricting Standards from Representative Merrill Nelson (Republican – Grantsville)
    • The redistricting process is a messy one under the best of circumstances; throw in the fact that, here in Utah, lawmakers (read “the Republican majority”) redraw the districts and voters within those districts with such precision that the vast majority of races are decided long before November, and you have a real problem on your hands when it comes to protecting free and fair elections. The process, which takes place every ten years after the census, is rapidly approaching, with the next redistricting process taking place in 2021. There are only a handful of federal laws related to redistricting, and only the most egregious examples of gerrymandering (when districts are designed to benefit one group and/or political party) are actually overturned. Representative Nelson attempted to put some basic guidelines around the upcoming redistricting process with HJR 1 – though the ideas in it are often touted by reformists (respect for current political borders, attempts to make districts as small as possible, joining areas together with similar economic, social, and geographical relationships) the legislation failed in the Senate Government Operations Committee as some lawmakers felt that divided cities and towns actually provided a benefit to communities because it meant multiple representatives would be covering the same area.
    • Final House vote: 70-0.

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