2012 Utah Legislature adjourns; focus on sovereignty
The Utah Legislature adjourned at midnight Thursday, after 45 days of efficient lawmaking, angry fist-shaking at the federal government, conservative cause-pushing and the meting out of more cash than the state has seen in several years.
It was an otherwise mundane session without scandal or public furor. Potentially the most volatile issue immigration was avoided altogether and lawmakers quickly moved to dispatch a proposal to enact a statewide ordinance banning housing and employment discrimination against gays and lesbians.
In the $13 billion budget, which saw about $440 million in new spending, lawmakers were good to education, law enforcement, state employees and social services.
But it was the state sovereignty-palooza, including Utah's Sagebrush Rebellion 2.0, that garnered the most attention, as lawmakers sought to stake a claim to 30 million acres of federal land in the state with an eye toward instigating a court fight.
Conservative Republicans also waged a war over educational curriculum standards Utah and other states joined, which they viewed as a federal power grab. And the Legislature joined a health care compact with four other states, asking the federal government to cede health care programs to the state.
"A message has been sent. That's part of why we're doing it. But we sent a message last year and we send a message most every year," said Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville. "I think the weight of the message is starting to build, though."
Waddoups said he hears similar frustration from his colleagues in places like Idaho, Arizona, Ohio and other states.
"We're joining the cacophony of sounds that is coming from the legislatures around this country saying: 'Washington, enough is enough,' " he said.
But making a statement is very different from making a change, points out Thad Hall, a political science professor at the University of Utah.
The bills the legislators passed whether demanding the federal government surrender lands in the state, or give up running health care all require Congress to act. Failing that, they don't accomplish much.
"In many respects, in an election year you're seeing the Legislature engage in some high-profile examples of symbolic politics. It looks like they're doing something without really doing something," Hall said. "This is all part and parcel of the same anti-Washington rhetoric."
That type of rhetoric plays well with Republican delegates, who tend to be among the party's most conservative members and will be courted aggressively as the GOP nominating process ramps up in the coming weeks, Hall said.
Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, said the state sovereignty bills that passed in the 2012 session were a continuation of a reaction to the President Barack Obama administration that began with states' rights bills passed two years ago including an opt-out of federal health reform and rejection of federal gun laws for weapons made and sold in the state.
"What you're seeing with this current administration is they're [running] on all cylinders putting regulations in every aspect of our lives," Sumsion said.
Sumsion, a candidate for governor, was the sponsor of one of a package of bills that demanded the federal government turn over control of public lands. Proponents argue that, without federal restrictions, the lands could be opened up to mining, drilling and grazing, and generate trillions of dollars for Utah's schools.
The bills passed easily and are expected to be signed by Gov. Gary Herbert, but legislative attorneys and legal scholars note the challenge is almost certainly unconstitutional. But state leaders are undaunted.
"If sovereignty means anything, it means not having to say, 'Pretty please,' or 'Mother may I?' " said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, who is an attorney.
"I think there's some pent-up frustration. It kind of ebbs and flows," said Gov. Gary Herbert. "Right now, with a fast-growing state, we have needs for economic opportunity and there's frustration when we see even the multiple-use of our lands has waned."
In an ongoing battle against federal health reform, the Legislature committed Utah to join a Health Care Compact with Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Georgia, asking Congress to let the states run their own health care programs, including Medicare and Medicaid.
Critics say the state would have to either raise taxes or slash benefits to keep up with hundreds of millions of dollars in lost funding. But the measure's sponsor, Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, said states could run health care programs far more efficiently than the federal government.
"We're having foisted on us one of the boldest and most grandiose medical experiments of all time and many of us are looking on in sheer horror," Daw said.
The Utah Eagle Forum, meantime, mounted a major push against what is known as the Common Core Curriculum, a set of standards that Utah formulated in conjunction with other states.
The curriculum, said Eagle Forum president Gayle Ruzicka, "has been co-opted by Obama," and the state can do a better job setting its own standards.
State Superintendent Larry Shumway said he understands the concern opponents have, considering the reach of the federal government. But, he emphasized, "These are not their standards. I refuse to let them have them."
In addition, the Legislature considered a slew of other bills and resolutions objecting to airline security screening, supporting gold as a legal tender in the state, affirming Utahns' ability to farm their own food, opposing federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells, eliminating daylight savings, and opposing the potential detention of Americans authorized in a recent defense bill passed by Congress.
"I think what has happened is we've had it," said Ruzicka. "Everything they try to do up here [runs into] the federal government. Pretty soon, you've had it. You say, 'We are a sovereign state.' â¦ I think we've just started trying to make it happen."
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said the outrage over the heavy hand of Washington is inconsistent with the state's own treatment of cities and counties.
The Legislature sought set limits on cities' landlord regulations and land use planning and issue various directives to school districts.
"We push back against any effort by the federal government to impose mandates, impose restrictions, provide funding with any strings attached but we don't have any hesitation [with local governments], we say 'OK, you need to do this or you can't be doing that,' " King said.
Legislators also played to their conservative base by forbidding schools from teaching any sex education aside from abstinence only and by requiring women to wait 72 hours before having an abortion.
Waddoups defended the sex education change, saying the curriculum that was in place was not in line with Utah's values.
"There was some real anti-family values stuff going on that needed to be changed," he said.
Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said he was hearing a backlash over that bill from constituents who say that teenagers need sex education.
"I think it's important to urge the governor to veto this bill. I think that's an appropriate response. We have overreacted," he said.