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. Over the last week, lawmakers have kicked into a higher gear so there’s a lot to discuss: let’s dive right in.
Yesterday a bill landed with a bang that would make Utah a 2-party consent state, meaning you can’t record your phone calls and conversations without disclosing and getting permission from the person(s) you’re talking to. The sponsor says the Salt Lake Chamber asked for the bill, and the LDS Church confirmed it has been lobbying for the legislation, ostensibly to protect ecclesiastical leaders from being recorded without their permission.
Let’s start with our opinion folk, @gehrke and @mquist, what do you make of HB330?
Robert Gehrke (political columnist): I think it’s unnecessary. Yes, there are 11 other states that already do it. But nobody I talked to yesterday can articulate why this is a problem.
Michelle Quist (editorial writer): I think it’s antithetical to a GOP majority. It gives Utahns less freedom - not more. And the idea that the LDS Church asked for it is always uncomfortable.
Gehrke: The concern, according to the Salt Lake Chamber, is that some companies are worried about employees recording meetings. And of course as The Trib reported, the LDS Church is supportive of the bill, presumably so they can prevent members from recording interviews with bishops and the like — kind of an anti-MormonLeaks effort.
Quist: But when the church said it supports it to protect the privacy of sensitive conversations, it showed how little sense it makes.
If the person being interviewed is the one recording, and chooses to make it public, then the privacy right rests with that person, not the church.
Gehrke: The church support means it will pass, probably. As a journalist, I’m concerned about what it means for reporting or whistle-blowing. Say, for example, you have a meeting at an Orem Krispy Kreme with a candidate for attorney general to discuss, oh, I dunno, possible bribery schemes.
Wood: Obviously there’s a lot we don’t know about how the bill would take effect, and some of those lines would have to be set by courts. But do we have any sense what this change would mean for headline-grabbing things like the Nurse Wubbels arrest, or Gov. Herbert’s “Available Jones” comments, or Mitt Romney’s “47 Percent” (if that had happened in a 2-party state)?
Gehrke: Those too.
On a more fundamental level, if you don’t want embarrassing statements recorded, don’t say embarrassing things. I think church members and really anyone else should be able to record those types of exchanges for their own protection. Otherwise, it’s a total Star Chamber process.
Quist: It supports less transparency, not more. Bad bill, in my opinion.
Wood: @tanderson and @leedavidson do we have any sense of how leadership and the rank-and-file lawmakers are feeling on this one? With the church behind it, as Gehrke said, it’s probably in good position, yes?
Taylor Anderson (government reporter): Is this conversation being recorded?
Anderson: Never mind then I’m out.
Wood: I should have disclosed up front — all of your responses are being recorded and will be made public.
Oh wait, I don’t have to...yet.
Lee Davidson (government reporter): House Majority Leader Brad Wilson said yesterday he hadn’t heard much about the bill until we asked him about it, and said at that time it wasn’t on leadership’s radar. With the church supporting it, it likely is on the radar now.
Anderson: The lawmakers I talked to are getting hit hard with emails and several said almost all were opposed. People are riled up on this one.
Between the time the bill was filed (Monday?) and Tuesday morning, Sen. Fillmore got a dozen emails every one against. Lots of attention on this up here
Wood: I saw that Libertas is pitching compromise language that (they think) will calm everyone down. Do we have any idea what their solution is?
Quist: We don’t need compromise language. We don’t need the bill.
Wood: OK let’s move on since there’s *a lot* to go over. the House passed Rep. Lisonbee’s bill banning abortion based on a pre-natal diagnosis of Down Syndrome. Debate on the bill was...minimal.
Gehrke: Are you saying they terminated the debate prematurely?
Gehrke: No waiting period or anything?
Wood: They definitely didn’t watch a 1980s-produced video on the potential dangers of the bill.
Davidson: The bill would ban abortions just because tests show the fetus has Down Syndrome. Legislative attorneys put a “constitutional note” on the bill saying it likely is unconstitutional. That didn’t come up in debate that was shortened because the House was meeting beyond its scheduled debate time. Focused instead on value of those with Down Syndrome, and opposition to abortion.
Anderson: On HB205 (the abortion bill), I asked Senate leaders about it yesterday. They don’t seem concerned about the constitutional note on the bill.
Wood: Can we repeat that for one second? They don’t seem concerned about... a constitutional note?
Anderson: Abortion, they said, is a big subject in America, if you didn’t know.
Gehrke: House’s body, House’s choice.
Davidson: House Democratic Leader Brian King — who is active LDS, by the way — warned in an earlier hearing that the state is just buying a lawsuit if it passes this.
Quist: Right. It’s a message bill. Make it a resolution, not a bill.
Wood: Another odd thing happened during the debate. Rep. Hutchings, filling in as speaker, kind of scolded Rep. Lisonbee, asking if she wanted to present on what the bill does instead of just reading comments from her Facebook page.
Quist: With a little light sexism thrown in.
Wood: Do lawmakers *like* this bill? Or do they feel pressure to pass it?
Davidson: Abortion is a big issue for many voters, so members like to do something to show they oppose it -- even if it may have constitutional issues.
Gehrke: Privately, what I’ve heard is that they recognize it’s probably an unenforceable message bill. But also a hard one for them to vote against in an election year without risking being painted as supporting aborting babies with Down syndrome.
Quist: So dumb. I have a son with Down Syndrome and I don’t support this bill. I also don’t support aborting babies with DS.
Gehrke: Right. It’s entirely possible to do both.
Quist: It’s a response to Iceland. We’re not Iceland.
Wood: @leedavidson you wrote about the $1.7M tax cut to energy solutions, which just so happens to be the Number 1 campaign contributor in the state. The optics aren’t great, but what’s the argument *for* the cut?
Quist: The optics are worse than “not great.” They’re horrible.
Davidson: Supporters say the company needs that to remain competitive with companies in other states where taxes are lower. The company is the largest single donor to Utah’s legislators. It gave 43 of them more than a combined $67,000 last year, including $6,000 to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Knotwell.
Gehrke: Pretty good investment if you’re EnergySolutions. Give lawmakers $67K and get $1.7M in return. Solid business model.
Davidson: A Tribune editorial today said, “Utah lawmakers rob their state.” It noted the company is doing well enough financially to have tried to buy a competitor in Texas last year, but a judge blocked that as a violation of federal antitrust laws. And EnergySolutions agreed to pay $50,000 for violating its permit terms 11 times in a two-year period, but it took two years for the violations to become public.
Quist: What a great editorial.
Wood: lol, @mquist
Anderson: Ha - I think Bagley opined on this as well.
Davidson: Interestingly, this comes as Gov. Herbert has been making a case that the state could avoid the sorts of tax increases proposed by Our Schools Now by wiping out a slew of tax breaks it has passed through the years that likely are no longer needed – but the House passed that new one for EnergySolutions.
Wood: Someone with an opinion: is EnergySolutions having trouble being competitive?
Quist: The company has a license only 3 other companies in the nation have. There is no competition.
Gehrke: Yeah, they’re trying to buy the competitor that the company says is horning in on what has essentially been a monopoly in the past.
They’re arguing Texas has cut licensing and regulation fees for that company, so Utah should do the same. It’s hard to see how the $1.7 million is a dealbreaker for a company this size and also hard to understand why taxpayers should subsidize those costs now.
Davidson: Also of note, yesterday Sen. Daniel Thatcher, part of whose district is in Tooele County, also introduced a resolution to allow EnergySolutions to create a new landfill in that county for non-hazardous waste.
Wood: I guess I’ll look forward to the EnergySolutions license plate when I buy my next car.
Davidson: While shining in the dark. After all, don’t we want to attract more nuclear waste dumps and their jobs?
Gehrke: Of note: They are the primary sponsor of the Salt Lake County Republican Party Lincoln Day dinner this year...the party’s main fundraiser.
Davidson: It may shine in the dark, too.
Quist: Maybe if they reduce their prices they’ll get more business. Free market, silly me.
They tried to buy the TX company, now they’re getting government favors. Just run your company well.
Wood: Lee mentioned Our Schools Now, and as it happens, Rep. Schultz has unveiled his “compromise” bill that would undo the OSN tax increase if voters approve it in November. This is also while we’re hearing rumors of a similar scheme to kneecap the medical marijuana initiative
Anderson: Compromise bills huh?
Anderson: Rep. Lee Perry says he’s working on a medical marijuana (MMJ) bill that may or may not have a provision where the bill doesn’t take effect until the feds reclassify pot on the controlled substances act. That, essentially, is what states have been waiting for for decades.
Gehrke: Last I heard, that provision isn’t in there. But we haven’t seen language yet.
Anderson: Last I heard, Perry says he wants to “educate the public” about what he said are issues with the MMJ initiative, and isn’t committed to passing the bill.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, seem committed to HBs 195 and 197, legal MMJ for terminally ill patients.
Wood: So @tanderson, is it more of a shot across the bow?
Anderson: Yes @bwood. I asked Perry several times his intent. That is it.
And @bwood. What is Rep. Schultz trying to do with that Our Schools Now bill?
Wood: It cuts tax rates back to their current levels if voters approve the OSN increases. Shultz says the state can accomplish the initiative’s goal without a massive tax hike.
I mentioned before how lawmakers can claim to give schools a boost without actually doing so, which is what this bill does. In personal terms, it’s like moving money from you’re checking account to your savings account and thinking you have more money.
@gehrke does that kind of choose-your-own-adventure bill, where it takes effect *if* something happens, hold up?
Gehrke: Legally speaking? I think it probably does. Although I will note that my law degree came from the side of a box of Cookie Crisp.
The perception, however, isn’t good, when lawmakers — who, as we’ve noted have failed repeatedly to address their constituents’ concerns on these issues — start monkeying with what is already an incredibly challenging process.
Lawmakers are a little butt-hurt (can I say that here?) that they aren’t getting credit for spending $830 million on education over the last three years.
Anderson: Yes @gehrke but you’re being recorded.
Wood: I’m not editor, but I think “Butt-hurt” is allowed.
Quist: I think the bill canceling the our Schools Now tax won’t go over well with voters.
Anderson: Let’s talk about that @mquist
Quist: Voters will be more than butt hurt. They will be STEAMING.
Wood: I could talk all day about that $830M number, but I’ll resist. Suffice to say, that gets swallowed up pretty quickly in a state with this many children.
I assume Schultz’ bill is a similar shot across the OSN bow, but when I interviewed him he didn't’ seem to think voters would mind the bait-and-switch
Anderson: Interesting take. Voters wouldn’t mind if the Legislature took their voice away?
Gehrke: I would imagine his constituents in Hooper won’t vote him out over it. So why does he worry?
Wood: His bill does push some sales tax money to schools that wouldn’t otherwise be there, but even that is fishy because they can monkey with the sales tax money that currently goes to higher education.
Gehrke: The initiative process is an extreme measure. It’s expensive and costly. And Senate leaders are correct it’s not ideal because the language can’t be massaged. But it’s a last resort from groups of constituents who feel like they’ve been ignored. This goes even farther. They’re now not just ignoring them, they’re actively stripping them of the only remaining recourse they have.
It’s really shameful. Watch for my column on that tomorrow.
Anderson: It can be massaged after the fact, though @gehrke
Gehrke: True dat
Wood: Moving on again, Martha Hughes Cannon has been something of the main character of these weekly chats. Last week she seemed ready to pack her bags for D.C. but now we’re hearing that Rep. Noel is bottling the bill up in House Rules. Is Martha’s trip canceled?
Davidson: House Rules Committee Chairman Mike Noel is a “Philo fan.” So he temporarily bottled up the bill for a Cannon statue in his committee. He says he wants to buy time for other Philo fans to make their case that he is an internationally important figure from Utah, and to stop what he sees as a rush to change by Team Martha.
Quist: He promised to let it out. I think she’s still going.
Davidson: But he’s going to make Team Martha fight a bit harder to take Philo’s spot.
Wood: I’m biting my tongue on all the gender-roles jokes in my head. But @mquist, you’ve been our biggest Martha champion, how do you feel about a male lawmaker playing politics with this resolution?
Anderson: Is @mquist being sworn in to testify on this?
Wood: Yes, I’ve been given subpoena powers by Rep. Stratton’s super committee
Gehrke: Call it the Committee on Redundant Investigations Committee.
I don’t know this for a fact, but there is a practice in the Legislature of holding back some bills that the other chamber wants so they can be used as leverage. It’s possible that’s what we’re seeing here. I think Martha has support and it’ll get through in the end.
Anderson: I think we lost @mquist
Quist: I’ll swear.
Wood: She’s back!
Anderson: Keep it to “butt hurt” or less, please
Quist: It’s actually too good to be true. I think Rep. Noel holding Martha back will help the cause.
Wood: Streisand effect?
Quist: Also, again, I’ll swear. I actually like to swear.
Davidson: On tape?
But really, when you have the House Speaker wearing a yellow rose during the Senate debate, you know most representatives support the bill. Noel is being a bully.
Wood: Let’s talk about the other big gender story from this week. @gehrke broke the news of Rep. Norm Thurston losing a chairmanship over his behavior toward women. I wasn’t on the hill yesterday so I don’t know what ripples that sent through the chambers
Davidson: Thurston was still there, and still participating in debate.
Quist: I’m glad to see something done. Zero tolerance.
Gehrke: Wait. I thought it was Norm Peterson.
Quist: Him too probably.
Davidson: Thurston proposed an interesting change to a bill to allow “water cremation.” Didn’t want to restrict it to licensed funeral directors. He said “two guys in a garage” should be allowed to buy such a machine. Really.
Gehrke: Thurston posted a video this morning explaining his drug reimportation bill. He seems to be rolling with this action by the Speaker.
Wood: Apropos of nothing: Thurston also has an odd way of eating bananas horizontally. Or at least he did the time I saw him eat a banana from the House gallery.
Davidson: Water cremation, by the way, uses chemicals to dissolve a body. It's becoming popular, and is seen as a green alternative to by-fire cremation.
Anderson: What Would Dexter Do
Quist: I have nothing to add to this weird convo.
Gehrke: I think Michelle is right. I think the speaker needed to do something. He had apparently been warned about his treatment of women at the Capitol before. The Speaker doesn’t have a whole lot of options, but I think he took the action that was at his disposal.
Wood: It’s safe to say this issue isn’t limited to one lawmaker. Should we expect to see more actions like this taken by legislative leaders?
Gehrke: We’ll have to see if the message gets through to Rep. Thurston.
Anderson: Thurston had been warned before?
Gehrke: That’s what I have been told. It was almost like he was on a probationary status.
And to be clear, we don’t know WHAT he said or to whom. But it was kinda the last straw.
And not only had he been warned, they’ve ALL been warned. And, oh, by the way, the issue has been in the news lately.
Quist: I hope everyone is on notice.
Wood: We’ve got a few minutes to wrap up. @tanderson what can you tell us about toll roads? And everyone else, what are the other bills/events that need mentioning this week?
Anderson: Lawmakers pulled the ole switcheroo on the Senate floor. So now the bill moving forward (SB71) takes the Legislature out of the equation of adding new open road tolling to existing roads and highways in the state.
(It’s a bit easier politically that way.)
Wood: So, potentially, tolls fo’ days?
Anderson: Tolls fo’ miles
Quist: That was weird. And less than transparent.
Wood: Hmm, there’s that word again....
Quist: I’m OK with tolls, but be transparent.
Gehrke: Prior to that change the bill required approvals of specific toll roads by the Legislature, correct?
Davidson: I think tolls were allowed only on new roads, or roads that were being widened, etc. Think the Utah Transportation Commission has to approve it.
The change could allow tolls on now-existing roads. It may be one way to replace dwindling gas tax revenues.
Gehrke: I’m on the record supporting tolls. You can learn more about my views here: https://www.sltrib.com/news/politics/2018/01/31/gehrke-the-time-has-come-to-toll-cars-driving-up-the-cottonwood-canyons/
Gotta gin up some more clicks.
Well, we’re out of time and that’s a great list. We’ll have a lot to follow up on next week. Thanks everyone. Readers, what bills are you “butt-hurt” over? Let us know in the comments.