Four GOP lawmakers pushed UTA to remove pride-themed bus, records show

Records obtained Tuesday show that in a text, one state legislator told a UTA board member, “I just want the problem solved asap.”

(Utah Transit Authority) A Utah Transit Authority bus with pride livery will no longer appear in Sunday’s annual Pride Parade, a spokesperson with the transit agency said Friday, June 2, 2023.

A group of state GOP lawmakers pressured the Utah Transit Authority to remove pride livery from one of its buses days before the pride-themed bus was pulled from the annual Utah Pride Parade, text communications obtained Tuesday by The Salt Lake Tribune show.

The records indicate at least four Utah legislators contacted UTA officials last week to express their displeasure with the pride-wrapped bus, which features colors from the progress pride flag. The bus has been in service for more than a year, and the pride livery was funded from a private donation from R&R Advertising and Lamar Advertising, UTA spokesperson Carl Arky told The Tribune.

UTA had promoted the pride-wrapped bus in a tweet on Wednesday, May 31, ahead of Pride Month. Records indicate that tweet prompted the lawmakers’ text communications, which The Tribune received Tuesday after filing an open records request.

The legislators who reached out to UTA officials about the bus include Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman; Rep. Kay J. Christofferson, R-Lehi; House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper; and Rep. Colin Jack, R-St. George, records show. Christofferson is the chair of the House Transportation Committee.

‘I just want this problem solved asap,’ lawmaker said

In a text to UTA board member Beth Holbrook on the same day that the UTA tweet was shared, Schultz wrote that the Twitter post was causing him “a whole bunch of drama” inside his caucus. He asked if the pride-wrapped bus was “really necessary,” and if the authority could reevaluate its decision, records show.

“Honestly this is the last thing I want to deal with right now,” Schultz said in the text. “It seriously would be best if you made the change on your own. Let me know what you guys come up with.”

Holbrook responded that she was having UTA’s legal team look into it, but that they would have to be careful of First Amendment issues, because the “last thing I want to do is inadvertently cause controversy.”

“You are a state owned entity,” Schultz replied in a text, citing that the bus is paid for using tax dollars — although a UTA spokesperson confirmed that the pride livery was not paid for using public funds.

“Whoever made the decision to move forward with this bus absolutely knew it would be controversial,” Schultz continued. “To quote the Speaker ‘we live in Utah, we shouldn’t have to deal with this stuff.’”

The speaker Schultz referenced was apparently House Speaker Brad Wilson, who in April announced he was exploring a 2024 U.S. Senate run against Sen. Mitt Romney.

“I have a group of members wanting you to make a formal public apology,” Schultz’s text continued. “I just want the problem solved asap so we don’t have to go down this road.”

In a provided statement Tuesday evening, following a Tribune request for comment regarding Schultz’s apparent Wilson quote, Wilson said: “Utah has big opportunities to embrace and big challenges to overcome. I am hopeful moving forward UTA will stick to its core mission of moving Utahns.”

A Tribune request for comment sent to Schultz was not immediately returned Tuesday. A communications coordinator for Schultz noted in an email at about 2:15 p.m. that Schultz was unavailable for the remainder of the day.

However, Alexa Musselman, director of communications for the Utah House of Representatives, later released a batch of three separate statements attributed to Schultz, Pierucci and Christofferson. A statement was not provided on behalf of Jack, who did not respond to a Tribune request for comment.

The statement attributed to Schultz read: “I and many members of my caucus voiced concerns, and as Majority Leader, it is my responsibility to address their concerns.”

“State authorities should refrain from using taxpayer assets for purposes besides fulfilling their mission,” his statement continued. “I appreciate UTA’s efforts and work to move Utahns.”

House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said she was disappointed that members of the Legislature would ask UTA to pull its pride-wrapped bus. She added that members of her caucus “proudly celebrate” Pride and value the LGBTQ+ community in the state.

“What message are we sending to the people of Utah, when we tell [UTA] — even though it’s a quasi-organization — that they can’t have that bus?” Romero said. “... We can’t look at things from a narrow perspective when we’re looking at the entire state of Utah. We have to look at who all enjoys living here, and make sure that everyone feels included.”

Pride livery ‘not helpful or appropriate,’ another lawmaker said

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Transit Authority booth at the Utah Pride Festival in Salt Lake City on Saturday, June 3, 2023.

In a text message on June 1, the day after UTA tweeted about the pride-wrapped bus, Jack told a UTA official that he was “very disappointed” to see rainbow wraps on UTA vehicles, records show.

“I think public funds should never be used to promote private agendas,” Jack said in the text, “especially those that contradict our state ideals.”

Sahara Hayes, D-Salt Lake City, called the situation frustrating. Hayes is the only openly LGBTQ+ state lawmaker, and she said seeing messages of “hope, inclusion and acceptance” vilified by elected leaders is “disheartening.”

“I was looking at the [Speaker’s quote] about not having to deal with this stuff here, and I guess my question is, like, what stuff? LGBTQ people?” Hayes said. “Because we live here, too. ... I see a rainbow flag and I know that my partner and I will be safe walking into that establishment; I know that we don’t have to check whether or not we hold hands.”

On June 1, Pierucci also said in text to UTA board chair Carlton Christensen and another UTA official that the bus was “not helpful or appropriate for an entity funded by tax payer dollars,” records show.

In a statement attributed to Pierucci that Musselman provided on Tuesday, Pierucci said: “As a member of the Interim Transportation Committee, I am constantly advocating for increased frequency and access for the southwest corner of Salt Lake County.”

“I reached out to UTA questioning whether this was the best use of taxpayer dollars and the best way to maximize the state’s transportation budget,” the statement continued. “The UTA is a public entity and should focus on its mission of getting people from point A to point B.” Pierucci sent the same statement to a Tribune staff writer in a text message Tuesday afternoon.

In a text message on June 1 to both Holbrook and UTA board member Jeff Acerson, Christofferson also voiced concerns about the pride livery, writing that he was disappointed to see the transit agency using wraps that support a “controversial social position that is very devisive (sic).”

“Why spend the funds and political capital on this effort?” Christofferson said in the text, although Arky has said no public funds were spent on the pride livery. “What other social issues have you not supported, but now are supporting this? I am shaking my head at this decision.”

In a statement attributed to Christofferson that Musselman provided on Tuesday, Christofferson said: “As Chair of the Interim Transportation Committee, it is my responsibility to ensure Utah’s transportation and transit needs are met.”

“I voiced my concerns to UTA and encouraged them to responsibly utilize and maximize taxpayer dollars and focus on moving Utahns across the state,” the statement concluded.

Hayes said if the issue was really about who was paying for the pride livery — which Arky has said was funded by a private donation — it would’ve been addressed when the bus was put on the street a year ago.

“It’s not surprising to me that it’s not actually about who’s paying for it,” Hayes said. “People are upset now, because it’s Pride Month, because it is public, and because that is the overall atmosphere and temperature. It feels like an easy excuse to blame the vitriol on the taxpayer dollars, when that is not the issue I hear at all.”

Pulling the pride-wrapped bus

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Gillig Electric UTA bus in the Pride Parade, decorated with pride flags on Sunday, June 4, 2023. A UTA bus with pride livery was initially planned for the parade, but a decision was later made to pull the pride-wrapped bus and instead feature this electric one.

Arky said Friday that “the decision was made” to pull the pride-wrapped bus from the annual Utah Pride Parade and instead showcase one of the authority’s 20 new Gillig Electric buses. “They wanted to emphasize the clean energy vehicle and put it in front of tens of thousands of people who stand to benefit from the technology,” Arky said of UTA officials.

When asked at the time whether state lawmakers had prompted UTA to pull the pride-wrapped bus from the parade, Arky deferred to UTA executive director Jay Fox. However, Arky added at the time, Fox was on a camping trip Friday evening and did not have cell service. The Tribune still sent Fox a request for more information via email. It was not returned.

“We want to make it clear that it was never our intention to offend or disappoint any member of the communities we serve, including our valued employees,” UTA said in a statement released Tuesday. “Our priority was to ensure the best interests of public transportation in Utah, while acknowledging the diverse voices and concerns within our community.”

Hayes said the removal of the pride bus from the parade is indicative of the overall climate of increased animosity against the LGBTQ+ community — particularly the transgender community — on both local and national levels.

“You have the high level things, right? Like SB16, like banning care,” Hayes said, referring to the bill that Gov. Spencer Cox signed into law in January that banned gender-affirming health care for minors.

“These are more, it feels more like, government micro-aggressions towards this community — to do things like not include the words LGBTQ in a pride declaration,” she said, citing Cox’s Pride Month declaration this year that did not include the phrase LGBTQ+, “or to go out of your way ... to dictate what [UTA] is doing.”

Cox’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A staff member said he was out of the office Tuesday afternoon.

On Sunday, the electric bus that UTA instead included in the parade was decorated with pride flags, and a digital sign on the front of the bus that typically denotes its service route instead read, “ride with pride.”

The transit agency said in a Tuesday news release that it remains committed to supporting diverse communities across its service areas and listening to its community partners.

As of Tuesday, it remains unclear whether the pride-wrapped bus will continue to be used for service in the future, or whether the livery may be removed from the vehicle.

“We’re also constituents; we’re also residents. We live here. We just want to be loved and valued and respected,” Hayes said. “And when we’re passing laws that target people’s ability to live their lives, and when we’re going in to attack messages of hope and acceptance, it’s just truly disappointing.”

— Tribune staff writer Emily Anderson Stern contributed to this report.