Andy Larsen: What issues do Utahns support most — that our lawmakers have ignored?

Topics range from gun control to the ERA to sex ed.

It’s no secret: the Utah Legislature and the U.S. Congress frequently don’t reflect the wishes of their constituents.

I don’t know exactly why. But on a number of issues, those who run in Utah’s political sphere aren’t necessarily in touch with what the people who live in their districts want — and we have good evidence that, on those topics, they’re letting a majority Utahns down.

In this article, I wanted to list the most egregious of those issues. What exactly is it that Utahns want that their lawmakers are ignoring? Here’s the list:

1. Gun law reform: 90%

Utahns desperately support stricter laws on guns.

I know, I know, Utah is one of the most conservative states in the nation. But when asked in a June 2022 Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll about the issue, Utah voters couldn’t have been clearer: It’s time to step up on who owns a gun, and when.

The most-supported issue was background checks on guns. Ninety percent of registered Utah voters said that all gun sales should require background checks. Currently, those sold at stores do undergo a background check, but those bought at gun shows or private sales do not have any such requirement.

Other gun control issues received sizable support as well. According to the poll, 79% of Utah voters supported raising the gun age limit to 21, which may have helped prevent some recent notorious killers, including 18-year-old Uvalde, Texas, shooter Salvador Ramos, from getting their weapons.

Furthermore, 60% favored banning assault weapons overall.

Utah’s Legislature, meanwhile, recently went the other way, removing the requirement for a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

2. Equal sentencing laws: 73%

For too long, there’s been a racial discrepancy in drug sentencing laws. At the moment, drug sentencing on crack cocaine drug offenses can exceed those for powder cocaine by 18-to-1 — and the crack sentences disproportionately effect Black individuals.

A poll from the Libertas Institute think tank shows that Utahns favor fixing the problem through the EQUAL Act: 73% of the state’s voters support equalizing the sentencing on the issue. Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, backs the bill, which passed the U.S. House 361-66.

It has yet to clear the U.S. Senate. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, argued that the EQUAL Act doesn’t account for differences in recidivism between crack and powder cocaine.

3. Full-day kindergarten: 72%

Utahns overwhelmingly support full-day kindergarten.

Some districts already have embraced it. For example, when the Wasatch School District just gave parents the choice between full- and half-day kindergarten, “somewhere around 1%” chose the shorter option, according to KSL.com’s interview of Superintendent Paul Sweat.

Still, it’s not universal yet. According to a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll, 72% of Utah voters want a full-day kindergarten option, while 16% oppose it.

As of March, 30% of Utah pupils have access to full-day kindergarten, compared to 80% in the U.S as a whole. HB193, signed in 2022 by Gov. Spencer Cox, provides for a limited expansion and $12 million in funding for the program — but not enough to give all Utah kindergartners the option.

4. Free bus service in SLC: 72%

Park City and Cache County offer free-fare public transit systems. Salt Lake City does not. Only a limited number of rides in and around downtown are free to the public.

But a 2019 poll from The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute showed 72% of Salt Lake City voters strongly or somewhat support free fares, 23% oppose them, and 5% did not know.

The Utah Transit Authority’s “Free Fare February” experiment raised some eyebrows earlier this year, when it significantly raised ridership on buses and TRAX. Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, proposed that all UTA services be provided for free in perpetuity, but the bill stalled in a House committee.

5. Equal Rights Amendment: 71%

The Equal Rights Amendment is pretty simple: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Backers aim to enshrine the ERA as the 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

As of now, Utah is one of 12 states to never ratify the ERA. But 71% of Utah voters in a 2020 Utah Policy poll say they would strongly or somewhat support the state ratifying the amendment.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, sponsored a bill to ratify the measure earlier this year. It died without a vote.

Utah has a provision in its constitution protecting some rights of its own residents, regardless of sex. It reads: “The rights of citizens of the State of Utah to vote and hold office shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex. Both male and female citizens of this State shall enjoy all civil, political and religious rights and privileges.”

6. Popular vote choosing the president: 70%

I tried not to include old polls in this article, but I still found this one instructive.

In a 2009 survey by Public Policy Polling, Utah voters were asked: “How do you think we should elect the president: Should it be the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states, or the current Electoral College system?” Some 70% supported the candidate who got the most votes from all 50 states.

In that same survey, voters were asked a second question: “Do you think it more important that a state’s electoral votes be cast for the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in that state, or is it more important to guarantee that the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states becomes president?” Even then, support for the national popular vote stood at 66%.

Given the Electoral College edge Republicans have enjoyed in recent races, it was a surprisingly bipartisan result, it was a surprisingly bipartisan result, too: 82% among Democrats, 66% among Republicans, and 75% for those who didn’t say either affiliation. It’s unclear it that would be true in 2022, but it would be worth exploring.

7. Sex ed beyond abstinence: 68%

Here’s an interesting one: Utahns don’t currently favor the current method of teaching sex education in their schools.

According to a Tribune/Hinckley Institute poll in 2019, 68% of registered Utah voters supported sex ed beyond the current abstinence-only instruction offered in our schools.

More than 9 in 10 Democrats (93%) want more than abstinence-only sex ed taught in Utah schools, along with 74% of unaffiliated voters and even 56% of Republicans.

A 2021 bill that would have asked schools to teach “mandated instruction on coercion, sexual violence behavior deterrence, and sexual assault mitigation” failed in a House committee by a vote of 7-4. Rape, though, was the only violent crime in Utah to be committed above the national average from 2010 to 2020, according to the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer.

Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at alarsen@sltrib.com.