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. The Legislature got roiled by a sex scandal shortly after our last discussion, but before we get to that, let’s talk about an issue that won’t see the light of day this year.
Michelle Quist (editorial writer): Will it see the dark of night?
Wood: Yet again, a bill aimed at toughening hate-crimes laws will receive neither a committee hearing nor a floor vote. The reason, according to Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, is because “It doesn’t have the votes to pass.”
But here’s the thing, every year we see bills fail in committee and on the floor, sometimes in spectacular fashion. So on its face, Niederhauser’s explanation doesn’t make sense. What’s really going on with hate-crimes legislation?
Quist: Exactly. Why not let it die on the floor?
Robert Gehrke (political columnist): Kind of remarkable right? There are 1,400 bills and this one, which has the backing of a bunch of cities and counties, religious groups (except for one important one), and state prosecutors just can’t even get a hearing.
Quist: Probably because that would be worse press than never hearing it in committee.
Gehrke: President Niederhauser told me yesterday that by his tally there were as many as 18 Republicans who opposed it.
Quist: @gehrke hits it though — the “one important one” — the LDS Church — doesn’t support it. So it can’t get a hearing.
Lee Davidson (government reporter): Some bills take years to pass and build support, as the last hate crimes bill did.
Another that may take years is a clear ban on hand-held phones while driving. Polls show Utahns want it. Police want it. Insurance companies want it. But it was easily killed in its first hearing, over concerns about how it may hurt personal liberty.
Quist: Why do they oppose it? Because of the gay culture wars? There is more gender, religious, and racial discrimination/hate crimes in this state than anything. They’re hurting themselves.
Gehrke: The thing is, the LDS Church doesn’t even oppose it, directly at least. They said a couple years ago that there was a balance struck with the anti-discrimination law and they didn’t want to disrupt that. That was a couple years ago. The problem is everyone has interpreted that to mean church opposition and the church has let that impression linger.
Wood: So what’s the dynamic then? Is it that lawmakers feel they’d be embarrassed by casting a “no” vote on a bill that has broad support? What is the difference in calculus between this and a bill that simply dies in broad daylight?
Quist: Yes. It’s the egg in their face.
Davidson: If a bill dies without coming up in committee, members don’t have their name attached to it in an actual vote.
Gehrke: Lee is right. They don’t want to debate it or vote on it in an election year.
The opponents of the hate crimes bill argue that it punishes thought. Stuart Adams in particular has been a roadblock for it. He says he doesn’t think a guy in a cowboy hat who gets beat up outside a bar should be treated differently than gay people who get beat up outside a bar.
Because I guess cowboys have had such a rough go of it. They are constantly the target of crime because of who they are.
Quist: But even worse, look at Sen. Thatcher’s other bills. Are they moving? Isn’t he the sponsor of the “Gary Ott” bill that was negotiated during interim and ready to go at the beginning of the session? Where’s that bill?
This hate crimes bill is not a thought bill. And that’s the biggest travesty. They don’t even understand the bill. Probably haven’t even read it.
Wood: We need a Trib translation then. When they say they’re not hearing a bill because it doesn’t have the votes to pass, what they really mean is: _________?
Taylor Anderson (government reporter): Easier to not take a vote, than to vote against what seems to be a popular idea.
They just did the same thing on a resolution acknowledging why temperatures are rising.
Quist: “We don’t like it, we know everyone else does, and we’re going to punish the legislator who brought it.”
Gehrke: And so they discuss it in closed caucus where they can say whatever nonsense they want without being held accountable and then it dies quietly.
They won’t bother listening to the prosecutors who have been asking for this bill for YEARS. This one bothers me because really it’s a good bill that could help people and send a message to those communities that are frequently targeted that Utah has their back. Instead the message it sends is just the opposite.
Wood: Well, while the hate-crimes bill was taken out back and beaten with a sock full of pennies, other bills that *did* die in a public vote were brought back from the dead. Specifically, Rep. Stratton’s bill creating a super committee and Rep. Daw’s medical marijuana bill.
Anderson: Yes - the House just voted to let people who are on their death beds to decide if now is the time they want to start using pot to treat their conditions.
Anderson: Doctors can recommend - don’t call it prescribe - medical marijuana for people who they believe have less than six months left to live.
Quist: Yay House!
(That was sarcasm.)
Anderson: It is markedly more conservative than the citizen initiative - which likely already has enough valid signatures to reach the November ballot.
Quist: But this way the Legislature can say “we passed medical marijuana.” Good Samaritan binds the wounds, but leaves him in the road instead of taking him to the inn.
Wood: (as it so happens, a so-called “Good Samaritan” bill died on the House floor yesterday)
Taylor, there were two bills that (we were told) needed to pass together in order to work. Until yesterday, one had passed and one had actually failed. What would have happened without the Lazarus vote?
Anderson: @bwood If HB197 wasn’t revived from the dead, the Senate would not have touched HB195, the bill that legalizes it for those near death, because they would have had no way to buy their medicine legally.
Bringing it back from Grand Junction still isn’t legal, because medical marijuana is still federally illegal.
Gehrke: It could help people with terminal illnesses. But it does nothing for the thousands more who have chronic conditions. And then they nearly killed the bill that would actually have enabled those terminal patients to get their marijuana legally (grown by the state).
Anderson: So time will tell (or our next poll?) whether voters see these bills as the right step on medical marijuana for Utah.
Democrats feared that’s what will happen, and voted against HB197 on Tuesday.
Quist: I mean, do we give them credit for trying? Not really. Not when they have the knowledge that 1. this isn’t what Utahns want, and 2. this isn’t what Utahns need.
Gehrke: All this nonsense shows the Legislature isn’t serious about medical marijuana, as Rep. Brian King said during the debate yesterday, and demonstrates why the initiative needs to pass.
Wood: Do we assume the initiative is not standing down?
Anderson: It is not standing down.
Quist: The initiative is not standing down.
Gehrke: They absolutely are not standing down. I think they’re close to 110,000 signatures now.
Anderson: They’re at 142,000 @gehrke
Gehrke: Wow. Jumped up since last week, I guess.
Anderson: And the difference between these bills and the initiative is stark.
Gehrke: I think Christine Stenquist, one of the organizers of the marijuana initiative was spot on when she said the other day: “We’ve come to them year after year after year, asking for help, and they’ve slapped our hands down when we were begging for crumbs. Now they want to come in and say, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing. We can do it better.’ They’ve lost that opportunity.”
Wood: Let’s pivot to the super committee, which may or may not be investigating this chat as we speak (write?). Did it live to die another day, or is it full of the breath of life now?
Davidson: It’s ALIVE.
Quist: I think it lived to die another day.
Anderson: That bill - HB175 - is a House leadership priority. It was dead but rose again and is out of the tomb.
Quist: This is going to be like the GRAMA bill that they passed and then had to unpass quickly after session. If they actually pass it. The public backlash, especially from cities and counties, will be huge.
Anderson: Lee can ask Senate leadership about the bill later today, but my guess is they “haven’t read it yet.”
But the committee is modeled after the congressional oversight committee formerly chaired by formerly Jason in the House.
Davidson: Senate leaders, when asked about it in the past, were a little confused about it -- and essentially said it was a House thing.
Gehrke: Any time a lawmaker says “Give me power to investigate what I want,” you should be fearful.
Anderson: Local governments, school boards, the governor - all against it. They say it tips the balance of government powers out of whack in favor of the legislative branch.
Quist: Solve a problem that actually exists - like the Gary Ott problem.
Davidson: It’s part of an ongoing pushback against Gov. Herbert for refusing to call the Leg into session last year to design the special congressional election.
During summation yesterday [Stratton] essentially said when families grow they need more bathrooms and bedrooms. I don’t get the analogy.
Gehrke: Stratton can’t articulate WHAT it is that isn’t being investigated adequately. My hunch is this is yet another of the bills ginned up by the land owners in the Cottonwood Canyons who want to go after Salt Lake City, the county, Mountain Accord and the like.
Quist: The Legislature is off the rails -- this bill that wants to overlord everything in the state, a bill to allow the Legislature to intervene in any judicial case it wants to, a bill to remove the constitutional warnings on bills that may be constitutionally suspect. What is going on?
Gehrke: But they have a state auditor. A legislative auditor. The Attorney General’s office (oh yeah, them). Legislative staff and committees. County auditors.
It’s a power grab and, to use the cliche, a solution in search of a problem.
Wood: What’s the collective noun for auditors? A spreadsheet of auditors?
Quist: There is no problem this bill solves. Next.
Wood: Folks, I think it’s time to talk about the honeytrap conspiracy plaguing our Utah legislators.
Wood: To recap, allegations came out that Rep. Stanard had hired a prostitute, twice, whilst staying in a hotel on the public dime.
Then his colleague Rep. Vickers claimed that a woman was waiting for him outside his hotel room, saying she was his “date” for the evening.
Quist: Poor, poor legislators. At least the male ones.
Gehrke: I’ve never seen her before in my life!!!
Quist: Where are all the male dates showing up at hotel rooms?? Totally discriminatory.
Gehrke: Good idea, Michelle. I’m sending a male escort to Peter Knudson’s hotel.
Wood: Someone, anyone, what is going on?
Anderson: It’s still really hard to say. Lots of questions but few answers.
Quist: Well, it is Valentines Day. Love is in the air.
Anderson: How did this person know where a state senator was staying? Was it an honest mistake or entrapment?
Wood: At this point, roughly 1 out of 4 rooms at the Little America is occupied by a rural lawmaker. Perhaps she just kept knocking doors?
Quist: Or she was a plant to pivot.
Gehrke: The whole thing smells a little fishy. It’s hard to know exactly who wanted to try to entrap Evan Vickers, why they picked Vickers specifically, how this woman knew where he was staying. It doesn’t seem to have happened to anyone else.
Wood: Right, was this just a woman who was meeting someone at the Little America? Have we heard anything from law enforcement?
Anderson: They’re reviewing footage @bwood.
Quist: We haven’t heard anything, other than Pres. Niederhauser’s advice to be careful.
Wood: Does it matter that Sen. Vickers and Rep. Stanard are close friends, as far as lawmakers go?
Gehrke: But, there is apparently video footage. So maybe they’ll find the woman and get answers. And it (along with the Stanard saga) is a wakeup call that, hey, legislators, don’t do stupid things.
Quist: Repeat. Hey legislators, don’t do stupid things.
Gehrke: Easier said than done, Michelle.
Davidson: As the Geico ads used to say, Everyone does stupid things -- but being involved with a prostitute doesn’t need to be one of them. Maybe Geico didn’t say that exactly....
Anderson: That was a strange distraction from the session, though. Very busy time up here and we’re all chasing down escorts.
Davidson: I let @tanderson contact the call girl. Didn’t want to explain it to my wife that night.
Gehrke: I hope they don’t check my expense account, Lee.
Wood: Let’s talk briefly about a new and developing story involving Rep. Noel and his HUGE tracts of land near the GSE national monument
Anderson: Near - and inside - the monument.
Wood: Conflict of interest is a tricky thing in the Utah Legislature. What does this actually mean for Noel, and does it impact the session?
Gehrke: It means nothing for Noel. The guy has torn through this session like a freight train. He’s got some truly awful bills, but this won’t stymie any of them.
Wood: Has he torn through the session like cattle drivers on a dedicated SLC highway?
Anderson: You know how Noel is. I kept pressing him that he didn’t disclose this land or his holding company (which he calls a family trust but which is a limited liability corporation that should have been disclosed). He said he doesn’t care about the accusations.
Quist: I don’t think it impacts the session. And yeah, maybe a little bruising against Noel but nothing that sticks.
(Wow was that a mixed metaphor.)
Davidson: After all he is chairman of the powerful Rules Committee. Then again, Stanard was its vice chairman -- and now he’s gone.
Gehrke: This also plays into the “Enviros are out to get Mike Noel” narrative. Look, objectively it looks bad. He was VERY outspoken on changing the boundaries and, lo and behold, it changes and benefits him.
Quist: But it doesn’t benefit him! Because all those environmentalists wanted to buy land that couldn’t be built on. You know, to protect it...
Gehrke: It also raises questions about the conflict of interest disclosure. We were supposed to get more transparency after John Swallow hid his financial ties a few years ago. But it’s still pretty terrible in most cases.
Quist: There should be real penalties for lack of disclosure.
Anderson: Otherwise, what’s the point @mquist?
Quist: Exactly. Do what you want.
Gehrke: That would require the Legislature to require transparency of itself. It was like having a root canal through the nose to get to where they are now.
Gehrke’s Law: No bill will get as much scrutiny and as many “what-ifs” as one that might affect the Legislature.
Wood: OK last topic. Today is the day folks, the main event, Philo vs Martha. By the time this chat posts we’ll know if Farnsworth will keep his place in the U.S. Capitol, or whether he, like so many persecuted white men, will be replaced by an accomplished, talented woman.
Wood: Vegas odds have Philo going down in the 5th round. Place your bets
Quist: Martha is victorious.
Davidson: Ironically, Noel is the guy leading the fight for Philo.
Anderson: Noel, who briefly stood up to block Cannon, has stepped out of the way. As I type, lots of representatives are pinning yellow flowers on in support of Martha.
He pretended to cry yesterday when he announced the vote would be today at 11:30 in the House. Prediction: Final passage before Martha goes to Washington.
Update: SCR1 passed the House in a 67-3 vote, but amendments require an additional, likely procedural, vote of the Senate.
Quist: And anyone wearing a red rose today, which symbolizes anti-suffrage, i.e. women shouldn’t vote, should be publicly shamed and called to account.
Davidson: Philo will be back in about 20 years. Supporters will bide their time.
Quist: He can replace Brigham Young.
Gehrke: So does philo come down like this?
Quist: @gehrke Lol.
Nothing wrong with Philo, just time for someone else to shine.
Anderson: Do you guys think this issue has started any debate that will lead more women to enter politics in Utah?
Or is this just a debate on a statue?
Quist: I think the issue has helped women who wanted to get involved, get involved.
Davidson: I think Trump had more to do with that @mquist.
Anderson: (Goes back to our first caucus: will we see more women in politics in 2018?)
Gehrke: I don’t see gender, Taylor. I think the issue is that television has rotted several generations of brains and we need to hold Philo accountable for his sins.
His Demon Box must be stopped.
Wood: Actually, it’s about ethics in statue journalism...
Quist: I haven’t seen this kind of engagement by women in quite awhile.
Trump got them wanting to be involved, but Martha gave them a reason to show up.
Gehrke: I do think it sends a message to women who are interested. It’s symbolic beyond the statue.
Quist: We can’t do anything about Trump. We can do something about Martha.
Gehrke: But symbolism is cheap and easy. It’s going to take a lot more than that. It’s still nice. A valentines gift for the ladies out there.
Wood: Well gang it’s nearly showtime and I want to grab a ringside seat so I’m ringing the bell on this chat. Thanks everybody.
Readers, what’s your take on the championship bout between Martha and Philo? Let us know in the comments.