Trib Caucus: Things are looking good for hate-crimes legislation, but bad for Proposition 3

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

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 (government reporter): Welcome to this week’s Trib Caucus Slack chat, which will be convening weekly during the 2018 legislative session. We’re four days in (out of 45) and already the Senate is in a sprint to euthanize full Medicaid expansion while the governor and House Speaker are going all-in on hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts.

But first, long-dormant hate-crimes legislation is showing new signs of life after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints clarified that it is not opposed (double negative?) to revisions. Is this the year that bill makes it across the finish line?

(And in this case by “finish line” I mean a preliminary committee hearing, the first rung on the legislative ladder)

Taylor Stevens (government reporter): I think we’re seeing hate crimes [legislation] has a better chance this year. Our polling is showing strong public support for the measure — 64 percent — among Utahns, which spans across political ideology or religious identity. A recent high-profile hate-crimes case in Salt Lake City may be pushing lawmakers to take some action. And The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — which has long been thought to be an impediment to passing the bill — announced last week it won’t be opposing the proposal. So that doesn’t hurt either.

All this is culminating in the bill receiving its first public hearing since 2016, which should happen sometime next week.

Wood: At the risk of post-hoc ergo procter hoc: If Hate crimes gets a hearing can we draw a direct line to the LDS Church’s comments? They’ve been seen as the hurdle to clear before, no?

Robert Gehrke (political columnist): Senator [Daniel] Thatcher has said for a couple years now that he has had the votes to pass the bill in the Senate, but it would have taken Democratic votes to pass. So now we’re going to see where the votes are. The hearing was originally going to be Monday, but Republican leadership wants him to work on some compromise language. Groups like Libertas and Sutherland have weighed in on it recently. So we’ll see what the bill looks like if/when it hits committee next week.

And I think the church’s neutral position was a huge breakthrough. Keep in mind, in 2016, when the church said passing hate crimes would disrupt the balance struck with the anti-discrimination compromise, Sen. [Steve] Urquhart, the bill’s sponsor, said it cost him at least two votes.

Since then, the church has declined repeated queries about where they stand — refusing to even state a neutral position until last week. And *ta-dum* now we see it potentially getting its first hearing since their statement of opposition in 2016.

Trib Caucus

There still is a big question mark ... If Thatcher gets it out of the Senate, where does it go in the House? So it has miles to go to get to the finish line.

Bethany Rodgers (government reporter): Senator Thatcher certainly seemed to think the church’s clarification was a big deal when I spoke to him last week. He said, between the statement and the Lopez case, the proposal is in “a stronger position than we’ve ever been before.”

Stevens: There are a lot of unknowns. But even getting it out of committee may be seen as a win, since the bill hasn’t received a hearing since 2016. Thatcher has indicated he’s in this one for the long haul and that it can sometimes take a few years for lawmakers to become comfortable with an idea.

Wood: Ok let’s pivot. Last night was the State of the State, and the big line out of there was a huge drop in the sales tax rate and a huge expansion in the number of things taxed. We’ve heard this “sales reform” talk before, a lot. Is it happening this year?

Gehrke: Nope. Next question.

Wood: Ha! Well, all right then.

Gehrke: Kidding. I think leadership and the governor really, really WANT it to happen. And as Senator Adams said the other day, “I’ve never seen a Hail Mary pass caught that wasn’t thrown.”

Wood: Adams is getting a lot of mileage out of that line.

Gehrke: But the fact that, on the first day, he’s already characterizing it as a Hail Mary pass kind of shows where they are.

Ninety-nine percent of Hail Mary passes are not caught.

Wood: And, lest we forget, there isn’t $225M of revenue *in the sales tax* to cut right now.

Rodgers: The governor and leaders in the Senate and House all seem to be in agreement that *something* needs to happen around sales tax reform this year. I do wonder if the various parties will get tangled up in the details, though.

A working group consisting of legislators and reps from the governor’s office are looking at all the various services that could potentially be taxed. So far, from what I understand, they’re still working to come up with a list of services and how much revenue each could generate. So it seems like the conversation is still in a pretty early phase.

Gehrke: The problem is, when you get down in the weeds on these issues, it’s really, really sticky. And you start talking about taxing services, you are stepping on some very powerful special interests. You want to tax doctors? I’m sure the Utah Medical Association will be fine with that. [/sarcasm]

Wood: Herbert has stressed that the cut should benefit low and middle-income Utahns, so I suppose they could — to borrow a phrase from Jim Dabakis — “soak the rich.” But that won’t happen.

Gehrke: You want to tax lawyers and Realtors? But if you just cut the sales tax, you’ve missed your best opportunity to reform the system. On top of that, you really can’t do an overhaul without looking at all of these special exemptions. So there’s a ton of work to do. When the state revised the income tax under [Former Gov. Jon] Huntsman, that was the product of like five years of study by task forces that started under Gov. Olene Walker. And income tax is a million times easier than sales tax.

Rodgers: Plus, the governor wants a big sales tax cut, and the legislature seems more interested in lowering income taxes. FWIW, Kristen Cox from GOMB told the House Republican caucus this week that the administration is open to compromise on sales tax vs. income tax. But she said one reason the governor favors a sales tax cut is that it could really help lower-income Utahns, who spend a larger percentage of their earnings on taxes at the checkout counter.

Gehrke: I think she’s right about that. The sales tax is seen as a fairly progressive, consumption-focused tax.

Wood: You mean “regressive”, right @gehrke? Low-income Utahns don’t have savings, they spend all their money (on sales).

Gehrke: No. It’s actually progressive. Because as Cox said, people who buy luxury items pay more in sales tax. Especially if they don’t fiddle with necessities like food.

Wood: I’ve only ever heard the opposite from advocates.

Rodgers: The chart that Cox reviewed with House members showed that wealthier folks tend to pay a higher % of their salary on income taxes, while lower-income folks pay a higher % on sales taxes.

Here’s a blurry twitter pic of the chart in question:

Gehrke: Oh right. We were talking about different things there ... if you cut the sales tax it helps the low income Utahns. If you expand the base it gets into those areas that are untaxed that are largely paid for by higher income people. You’re right.

Wood: Ugh, see. Isn’t tax talk fun?

OK let’s talk Medicaid, which is about the only thing I’ve been dealing with for the last 4 days.

Wood: We’re one vote away in the Senate on a repeal of Prop 3. In fact by the time anyone reads this, SB96 may already be in the House. [Editor’s note: SB96 was “circled” and will likely be voted on in the Senate on Friday]

@gehrke you have opinions and such, why the hurry?

Gehrke: Good question. Obviously they want something in place by April 1 when they would start enrolling people. And that would presumably require a waiver from the Trump admin, even if they only go up to 100 percent of poverty (instead of 138 percent under full expansion in Prop 3).

Wood: So with the caveat that Medicaid is very complicated and there are a lot of subtle differences: Under SB96 we’re essentially right back where we started before the initiative, yes? This is [Rep. Robert] Spendlove’s bill 2.0?

Gehrke: Basically it is. They want the feds to pay 90 percent of the cost to cover people up to 100 percent of poverty. (A little over $12,000/year for an individual). That hasn’t been done anywhere else, but Sen. [Allen] Christensen and Rep. [Jim] Dunnigan were very confident in the hearing it would happen here for the first time.

If it does, you'll probably see the other, what, 36 states that have expanded go ask HHS for the same treatment.

The rush is pretty remarkable, though. It’s not often you see the fiscally conservative Legislature rushing to spend about $100 million without having a fiscal note. It’s kind of a get-it-done-and-worry-about-that-later.

Wood: It’s been something to watch. The Prop 2 replacer in December did move the state forward in terms of marijuana legalization. With Prop 3 there’s really been no effort made to meet voters in the middle.

Rodgers: My questions are, how long does a waiver last, and what are the chances the state will get one? I (briefly) listened in on yesterday’s Senate debate, and it seemed like even Christensen is worried about leaning so heavily on a federal waiver.

Wood: The waiver lasts until there’s a change of opinion (or occupant) in the White House. And Christensen’s entire bill is built on a waiver. Prop 3 needs no waiver.

Gehrke: Well, in the Legislature’s defense, SB96 would cover the gap ... those 90-plus thousand people who are in real poverty and don’t have any coverage. And, apart from the caps requested in the waiver, SB96 is basically Gov. [Gary] Herbert’s Healthy Utah plan from back in 2014-15.

Medical marijuana does get a boost if the new attorney general looks the other way, and it was kind of overlooked, but during his confirmation hearing recently he said he would do just that. It’s good news for Utah and all the states with medical programs in place.

Stevens: Now that you’ve brought up medical marijuana, it seems worth bringing up that many advocates have similarly raised concerns that any changes to Prop 2 would disregard the will of the people. Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, disputed that idea in Ben’s story yesterday.

“Let’s stop pretending like this is the will of the people,” he said, “because the will of the people was based on not all the facts.”

Rodgers: That’s a good point. It seems like the arguments used while overwriting Prop 2 are spilling over into the Prop 3 debate.

Stevens: Should we expect to see changes in the way these initiatives are put on the ballot language-wise?

Wood: Yes. Senate leadership say they’re looking at making any initiative with a tax increase list the tax portion first, or more clearly, and to make an initiative pay for itself. There’s also bills dealing with the signature thresholds, petition timelines, etc.

“Expect change” is my pitch for the theme of session 2019.

Gehrke: I doubt there will be big changes. I think Sen. [Wayne] Harper’s bill changing the time frame for the removal process, to have it run concurrent with the signature gathering, makes a lot of sense.

If they try to make it much harder or restrictive, they run into real constitutional problems.

Wood: But some fights are worth fighting no matter the cost, as Gov. Herbert would say (and has said).

Rodgers: Was that a segue, @bwood?

Wood: It could be.

Gehrke: I think the “some fights are worth having” takes us right into the abortion bill and Rep. [Merrill] Nelson’s birth certificate bill, no?

Rodgers: Absolutely.

Gehrke: Both have been ruled unconstitutional by federal courts in other districts. But here we go!

Rodgers: Legislative analysts have flagged constitutional issues with Rep. [Cheryl] Acton’s bill banning most abortions after 15 weeks and Rep. [Karianne] Lisonbee’s banning abortions done because of a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis.

Gehrke: I’m not sure it’s going to matter when it comes to Acton’s bill, or Lisonbee’s for that matter. Lisonbee’s flew through the House last year despite similar warnings.

Wood: But then that bill fell into a black hole in the Senate. Senate debate has begun, so I’m putting a lid on the chat. See ya’ll next week.

Readers, what’s your take on the debate over Medicaid expansion? Do you think lawmakers will go for the hat trick and replace Proposition 4? Let us know in the comments.

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