Trib Caucus: Lawmakers are already passing bills, but the most controversial issues are still on their way

Every week during Utah’s legislative session, The Salt Lake Tribune’s political reporters and columnists will chat about the hottest topics of the week. The following is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.

Benjamin Wood (education reporter): Welcome to this week’s Trib Caucus Slack chat, which will be convening weekly during the 2018 legislative session. We’re a little over one week in and a lot has happened. But first, let’s talk about the veritable slew of new poll results the Tribune has been reporting on.

Also as a note to our readers, be sure to share this week’s chat with your friends and family TODAY so they can read all the links before the Tribune’s new paywall drops.

Wood: @leedavidson, give us the 2-second version of the poll results you covered

Lee Davidson (government reporter): I did a story on a question showing that by a 2-1 margin, people do not want to return to the old system of choosing political party nominees only through the caucus-convention system. The Utah Republican Party is continuing lawsuits seeking to do that. People also want to allow candidates to qualify for the ballot by possibly collecting signatures, as allowed by a new election law called SB54.

Michelle Quist (editorial writer): Of course the Utah Republican Party is continuing the lawsuit it filed years ago to assert its right to choose its own candidates. It wouldn’t make sense to drop an appeal when the work has already been done. It’s a novel constitutional issue, and a ruling will help clear up unsettled law in this area.

And just to note my earlier conflict - I was an attorney for the Utah GOP in this case during its beginning stages. I withdrew as attorney pretty early on.

Wood: Any surprises in those poll numbers? And what bills on Capitol Hill deal with that question?

Davidson: No real surprise. There is one main bill dealing with that. Rep. Justin Fawson is pushing a bill that may allow candidate to choose between gathering signatures or using the caucus-convention system — and not use both. Parties would decide that. His bill passed out of House committee yesterday.

Wood: If that bill were to become law, and a party chose to exclude signature-gatherers, wouldn’t that push candidates to skip the caucus and convention route altogether?

Robert Gehrke (political columnist): Fawson proposed an amendment to a Bramble bill at the end of the session last year that would have done the same thing — let the parties choose the path they accept. And the Senate (Bramble in particular) decided to kill the bill.

The point is I’m not sure the Senate is willing to make the changes Fawson suggests. And of course if the Count My Vote initiative passes then that would trump the legislation.

Wood: “Trump.” Speaking of which, our poll shows the president’s approval rating in Utah is slightly underwater: 48-49.

Davidson: Fawson’s bill allows both options no matter what. He said conventions have become largely irrelevant because many candidates use both options. By making candidates choose just one, it puts some drama back into conventions because it would actually clearly eliminate or qualify for the ballot people who compete there.

Gehrke: Right. The candidate would choose one or the other. I misstated that earlier.

Quist: That would certainly support the idea that a candidate with no money can get through caucus when he otherwise wouldn’t have. Because the big, money candidates will go signature route no matter what.

Taylor Anderson (government reporter): UtahPolicy reported Romney will gather signatures to run for Senate.

Gehrke: Of course Romney is going to do signatures because he has money and name recognition and, frankly, doesn’t want to have to pander to the party’s right wing. To be clear, it’s not the pandering that’s a problem for Romney. Just the type of pandering.

Wood: So to our two opinion folk, @mquist and @gehrke, if you were running (#VoteGehrke?) and had the option of *only* signatures or *only* convention, which route would you take?

Gehrke: Well, I wouldn’t go to the convention because the conventions are full of crazies. Also, I think the party’s voters should be the ones who choose nominees.

Quist: It depends on a lot - am I the incumbent? Do I have money? Do I have delegate support? Is this a statewide election? A House or Senate election?

If so, signature, signature, convention, signature, convention convention. (Try to follow that!)

Wood: lol, love it. Ok, @tanderson tell us about the Gas Tax.

Anderson: So voters are not entirely averse to gas tax hikes (on paper, at least). Right around 50 percent say they’d pay more per gallon for road work.

Quist: I’m averse. How many tax hikes are we going to have this year????

Wood: Death and taxes!

There are a couple of bills that are subject-adjacent to the gas tax, yes? What’s happening there?

Anderson: Here’s the twist. I asked Senate leaders about it and they said they think gas taxes are where they need to be.

Wood: As in, current levels?

Anderson: The Senate opened the session saying roads were stealing $600 million from schools. But they’re looking at tolling and hiking the price of registering an electric vehicle, not hiking the gas tax.

Quist: Also, for tax polling, voters are more likely to say they’re for an increase until they walk into the voting booth (or seal their ballot at home), where no one is watching.

Wood: @mquist can you give an example of that? I hear that all the time as a truism, I’m just wondering when the last case study for Utah was.

Quist: I can’t. It’s just a Michelle-ism.

Wood: Never get involved in a land war in Asia

Gehrke: This talking point the senators trot out — that $600M of sales tax is going to roads — annoys me because Sen. Adams passed legislation earmarking a significant chunk of the sales tax for roads. The governor vetoed it and they overrode the veto, which is extraordinarily rare. They did this to themselves.

Davidson: Lawmakers do worry about raising taxes during an election year.

Anderson: And isn’t the state about to build *another* highway?

Gehrke: I’ll elaborate on Michelle’s point a little ... I think the support for both the gas tax and the sales/income tax initiative is going to be high in the polls because there hasn’t been an opposition campaign run against them. Support for the initiative in particular will soften once people are told it’ll mean $700 a year more for them directly.

Wood: Last week there was skepticism in this group that “meaningful” tax legislation would pass. Has anything over the last week suggested otherwise?

Anderson: Nope.

Gehrke: Lee and I were in the Senate briefing yesterday and they were asked basically “You don’t really think you can do anything on taxes this year, do you?” and they seem convinced it’s not a lost cause.

Anderson: Tax Commission Chairman John Valentine told lawmakers they can expect $80 million from the federal tax changes.

Valentine said lawmakers could offer tax breaks for small businesses to bring that number as low as $25 million. For complicated reasons, the state would bring in $25-$80 million more from the federal tax bill.

Davidson: One tax likely to pass: forcing counties to charge the maximum-allowed sales tax for transportation. It’s tucked into a bill calling for reform of UTA. It would essentially force Prop 1 into law, even though taxpayers in SL and Utah Counties rejected it in 2015.

Gehrke: On taxes still, my gut tells me that they gotta giddyup if they think they really can get something substantive done.

Anderson: I don’t see substantive. Maybe they lower the statewide income tax rate to 4.9%. But it’s not the meaningful change lots of people want to see.

Meaningful to people who have some more money in their pocket, sure. But it isn’t broadening the base.

Wood: Ok, I’m going to rattle off some of the poll numbers that our colleagues and myself covered. When you see something you like, or that has a corresponding bill on the hill, jump in.

Our Schools Now: 56-38; High point beer in grocery stores: 49-45; the 0.05 DUI law: 52-45; McAdams vs Love: 47L-42M; Medical marijuana: 76-22 and “Dreamer” protections: 69-26

Quist: I think the Our Schools Now numbers are higher than they will be in November.

Wood: @mquist that seems to be the general idea. But at the same time, if all you need is a majority of the vote then an 18-point support margin ain’t nothin’.

Quist: I don’t think it will pass. Especially if the Leg keeps pouring money into schools.

Wood: (Topic for another day: What does “pouring” mean?).

Gehrke: I think Michelle is right. Our Schools Now is not a slam dunk once opposition comes in and it gets framed, as I mentioned, with how it hits people’s pocketbooks. But maybe we’ll have so much money from the Trump tax cut we won’t care.

Quist: Money money money money .... MONEY!

Anderson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpbbuaIA3Ds

Quist: Yes - thanks @tanderson

Wood: One thing that caught my eye was the cross tabs on the 0.05 DUI law. Utah Catholics oppose it a whopping 86-14.

Gehrke: I’m frankly a little surprised that support for the 0.05 wasn’t higher. Catholics are opposed to it because they get it. You can drink responsibly and still get arrested and lose your license. I think it’s still possible — not sure if I’d say likely at this point — that they implement a tiered system, making a 0.05 DUI an infraction like speeding.

Davidson: Of course, if I remember poll results correctly, the only group really strongly for .05 are active LDS -- which is what most Utah legislators are, by the way.

Gehrke: That Dreamer number jumps out at you doesn’t it? You wonder why it’s so hard to get anything done on that issue, until you look at how absurd Congress is. The Church’s statement on the topic last week is also noteworthy.

Quist: Yes, I was impressed with the LDS Church’s statement, especially since it was the new administration’s first substantive policy statement.

Wood: Utah alone can’t do much on Dreamers but are there any resolutions? The Utah Legislature loves resolutions.

Quist: Utah tried with the Utah Compact years ago. Still nothing got done....

Davidson: The poll numbers on medical marijuana won’t mean much at the Legislature. Opposition remains strong there.

Quist: It’s such a winnable issue, Republicans are crazy not to get it done, and soon.

Wood: @mquist you mean MMJ, yes?

Quist: Dreamers.

Wood: Gotcha. I got a little lost.

Quist: On medical marijuana too, for that matter. The ship has sailed, honestly. Get on, or drown.

Davidson: Dreamers on medical marijuana?

Quist: Lol @leedavidson

Wood: Now THAT would boost Democrat turnout @leedavidson.

Gehrke: I’m not sure about that one, Michelle. I think the church’s statement on Dreamers is important. I think a statement on medical marijuana could be a deal-breaker.

Quist: I mean nationally, outside of Utah. With Colorado and Nevada and California all having at least medical marijuana available ... it’s too available.

Gehrke: Only until Jeff Session uses his Hobbit ring and casts a spell to undo it all.

Quist: It doesn’t make sense that an LDS member in Colorado can use it but one in Utah can’t.

Anderson: Those states all have recreational available @mquist.

Quist: I realized that before I pushed enter @tanderson but did it anyway...

Anderson: But it just shows how far behind Utah is.

Quist: Or it shows that medical marijuana really is a precursor to recreational.

Anderson: Some opponents to the MMJ measure warn of these ill side effects of medical marijuana. But the drawbacks in *recreational* states has been minimal. And they are raking in dough.

Wood: What are the marijuana bills this year? Anything besides the right-to-try proposal?

Davidson: House GOP caucus talked last week about medical marijuana, and went through a long list of reasons why they feel it is just a ruse to allow recreational marijuana — and how they hope to fight it.

Gehrke: Proponents of the initiative have 103,000 signatures, so it looks like it’ll get on the ballot. They are also talking to the church. It’s crucial they keep the church on the sideline.

Wood: @gehrke let’s talk about that for a second. Under the current version of the citizen initiative law we’ve never actually seen an initiative make it to the ballot.

Gehrke: Well, the referendum repealing vouchers did make it. And Count My Vote would have made it in 2014. But yes. These could be the first.

Wood: So, to @leedavidson’s comment about the House caucus. Lawmakers often talk about how they don’t legislate based on polls. But on some of these, medical marijuana in particular, the results are consistently in favor of clear legislative action. @gehrke and @mquist what impact do these polls have on the mind of a lawmaker?

Gehrke: I’m still predicting that the Legislature does something this session to monkey with several of the initiatives.

As to the polls, I think they like to say the polls don’t matter, and they dismiss the results as: Well, voters don’t understand the nuance. And they’re not wrong. Polls are bad at capturing nuance.

Quist: I think lawmakers are affected by polls, but are often in an echo chamber and don’t want to listen.

Gehrke: But I think they still have to recognize it indicates where voters are. And also, the fact there are so many initiatives, I think, shows that the Legislature is out of step with the public on important issues.

Quist: I still think we can only make that claim if the initiatives pass. If they pass, then we can say lawmakers are out of step.

Gehrke: Well, that may be true. Filing an initiative doesn’t mean that lawmakers are out of touch. But I think the difficulty in getting one on the ballot and the support in the polls would indicate a gap between the Legislature and the public.

Anderson: Lawmakers rightly believe it’s better to create policy at the Capitol. But @gehrke is definitely right, lawmakers have taken notice.

Gehrke: I will say this. Lawmakers LOVE polls if it supports their viewpoint. If it doesn’t, it’s just dumb statistics.

Quist: Truth @gehrke.

Davidson: Sometimes polls matter to lawmakers, sometimes they don’t. Ignoring polls has led to the initiatives this year — all issues that polls showed voters care about. But now that polls show they have a chance of passing, it does matter and lawmakers are trying to respond.

Wood: Is there any potential that whatever initiatives *do* make it to the ballot will get a boost from voters who just want to spite the Legislature?

i.e., you’re mad about air quality so you vote for anything that gives lawmakers a black eye?

Quist: I don’t think voters want to spite the Legislature. Life is busy, and most voters just want the Leg to leave them alone.

Anderson: Yeah @bwood I think you’re on a limb there

Wood: Fair enough, I withdraw my thesis (although I know a few people who’d love to spite the Legislature...).

Quist: You may need some more diverse friends, @bwood

Wood: Or less.

Gehrke: One more thing to note ... just because the initiatives pass doesn’t mean lawmakers won’t come in next year and monkey with them. In fact, I would guarantee in every instance that will happen.

Wood: We’ve got a few minutes left. What has happened on the hill since the last chat that we should mention?

Davidson: Among the bills passed by a full chamber was one to ensure that suicide crisis phone lines operate around the clock. It was called “Hannah’s bill,” in salute to Hannah Warburton, a teen who took her life after calling a crisis line and getting no answer.

Debate was surprisingly emotional as a long parade of House members talked about struggles by their own family and friends with suicidal thoughts, and how the bill would truly save lives. Rep. Susan Duckworth of Magna cried as she talked about her own years of struggle, and encouraged others to seek help.

Anderson: Utah is about to get automatic voter registration. We’re going to have hundreds of thousands more on the voter rolls by 2020.

Davidson: This week, the most interesting debate so far in the Senate was on a bill to replace one of Utah’s two statues in the U.S. Capitol, depicting TV-inventor Philo Farnsworth, with a new one of Martha Hughes Cannon, the nation’s first female state senator (a Democrat who defeated her polygamist Republican husband in the race for the Senate).

“Team Martha” supporters said voting for her would help show support for the role of women and women’s rights — and they passed out yellow roses that allies wore. They noted that only 9 of 100 state statues now in the US Capitol are of women. Those who supported Philo as a globally important inventor (he also invented the baby incubator) seemed to be sneered at as not quite getting how important the role of women is. “Team Martha” won by an overwhelming margin in the Senate, and it now moves to the House.

Quist: Yay for moving Martha Hughes Cannon to Washington! The Senate passed the resolution, I’m expecting the House to as well.

Wood: Do we have any sense of how the House feels about Cannon v Farnsworth?

Quist: Greg Hughes was wearing a yellow rose.

Davidson: House leaders were wearing yellow roses, if that is a sign.

Wood: I’d say it is

Gehrke: The House will pass it. It’s a lock. Martha’s going to Washington!

Davidson: Poor Philo, inventing TV and the baby incubator can be swept aside so easily....

Quist: It would be be great publicity for Utah to have Martha being installed right when the nation is celebration 100 years of the woman’s vote.

Gehrke: As I tweeted this week, though, I think if Martha Hughes Cannon showed up for the vote, she’d be pretty upset that there are only 21 women in the Legislature more than a century later.

Davidson: Great publicity? How would the word get out on TV without poor Philo?

Quist: Lol. Radio.

Gehrke: We’ll stream it, Lee. Geez.

Wood: Print!

Anderson: Paywall!

Quist: $$$$$

Davidson: No statue of Marconi in the Capitol either.

Gehrke: One more that we should note... I think the IUD bill for low-income women passing the House was significant.

Anderson: It was significant

Gehrke: I wasn’t sure it was going to. I think there were 21 votes against it. But it’s a good bill.

Quist: Yes I agree. These early bills already have support locked up. It has been a good use of the early session.

Wood: What’s the price tag on that bill?

Anderson: $800K/year. But Rep. Ray Ward says it will pay for itself within 2-3 years and lead to thousands fewer abortions.

Quist: But most of that 800 is paid by federal right?

Anderson: The feds pay several million, $800K is the state’s share

Gehrke: There was also an expansion of what is basically the Earned Income Tax Credit at the state level that passed the House. Another good bill sponsored by I believe Rep. Woodside?

That one has a bigger price tag, somewhere close to $6 million, I think.

Anderson: Yes. It covers 25,000 people at an average of $240 per person.

Wood: @gehrke any bad bills passed so far? (A note to readers, @gehrke is allowed to have an opinion on good/bad bills.)

Gehrke: I think Rep. Lisonbee’s abortion bill is a dog. HB205.

Quist: I actually agree, and my son has Down syndrome.

Anderson: Waiting for House vote on that, possibly this week.

Wood: And by “dog” you mean, “has a high probability of being declared unconstitutional by a court.” yes?

Anderson: Lisonbee voted in favor of the birth control expansion, btw.

Gehrke: It’s unconstitutional, unenforceable and doesn’t appear to actually be a problem in Utah...since you asked my opinion.

Quist: Right. It’s a message bill trapped in unconstitutional legislation.

Wood: Great round-up guys, thanks. Readers, are the Tribune’s polls “fake news”? What do you think are the good and bad bills of the session? Let us know in the comments.

Have questions for the Trib Caucus? Email them to bwood@sltrib.com or tweet @bjaminwood with the hashtag #TribCaucus for possible inclusion in a future chat.