Hate crimes bill stalled as Senate president says no need for debate when ‘it doesn’t have the votes to pass’

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, who sits on the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, talks about HB 86 at the State capitol in Salt Lake City Monday February 12, 2018. The bill makes it an offense to aid another to commit suicide.

For the third year in a row, it looks like a bill that would give Utah’s current hate crimes statute some teeth may die in the Legislature without a hearing.

SB86 — which would allow judges to increase the penalties for a charged crime if a defendant is convicted of targeting someone based on “ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation” — hasn’t budged from the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee since the session began Jan. 22.

“It doesn’t have the votes to pass,” said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy. “It’s a bill that’s been before us for the last couple years and we’ve had a lot of hearings on it before, and we understand what the arguments are for and against. So we’re just not taking time with it, at least at this point.”

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wayne Niederhauser, President of the Senate, talks in front of the Senate Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee about Utah pursuing another Olympic bid at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City Friday February 2, 2018.

Equality Utah Director Troy Williams said the bill has “widespread support” from a number of groups beyond Capitol Hill — including eight cities and counties, a group of religious leaders and “every criminal justice organization in the state.”

“It is frustrating,” he said. “But it took us seven years to actually pass a nondiscrimination law to include LGBT folks, which we did in 2015.”

Williams said advocates for the nondiscrimination bill “kept coming back year after year [for the nondiscrimination bill], and that’s exactly what we’re going to do with victim targeting. This is only our third year running the legislation, so we’re just getting warmed up.”

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, prefers to call the issue “victim targeting” rather than hate crimes, arguing that you can’t prove hate but you can prove someone specifically chose a target. He is sponsoring the bill on the issue for the second year in a row.

In 2017, his proposal didn’t receive a public hearing. And when a separate measure died in 2016, its sponsor, former Utah Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had "snuffed out” the proposal with a news release that was widely seen as a warning that lawmakers should not tackle any issues in which the balance between LGBT rights and conservative values could be tipped.

Thatcher called on the LDS Church in December to clarify its stance on his bill, noting at the time that some lawmakers may be opposed to the idea simply because they don’t understand the church’s position.

But so far, Mormon officials have stayed quiet on Thatcher’s proposal.

“We haven’t commented at all on this one,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins said, “and I’m not sure that we will.”

Despite the church’s show of neutrality this year and last, Thatcher said there is “significant opposition” within the Legislature this year that’s keeping the bill from moving forward.

Utah’s current hate crimes statute, which was adopted in 1992, has never resulted in an upheld conviction. Statistics released last November show incidents of hate crimes rose in 2016 — a trend FBI agents in Utah said they believe will continue based on complaints and investigations in 2017. Given the trend, Thatcher said the pressure to pass a resolution will continue to grow.

“You can’t ignore the problem forever,” he said. “These [hate crimes] are happening in other states. These things are happening in Utah. And, in Utah, when they happen, we do not have the appropriate tools to prosecute these crimes.”

As for whether there will be enough pressure this year for the bill to receive a hearing, Williams, Neiderhauser and Thatcher agreed: It’s early enough in the session that anything could happen.

“There’s always hope,” Williams said. “Miracles always happen up on Capitol Hill. But we really need to ask Senate leadership why they are stalling on a piece of legislation that has such widespread support across the state.”