Every week during Utah’s legislative session, The Salt Lake Tribune’s political reporters and columnists chat about the hottest topics of the week. The following is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.
Taylor Stevens (government reporter): Welcome to this week’s Trib Caucus Slack chat, which will convene weekly during the 2019 legislative session. We’re three weeks in and Gov. Gary Herbert has already signed into law a limited Medicaid expansion and lawmakers are looking at ways to tweak future voter initiatives.
On the heels of the one-year anniversary of a mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that prompted a national debate on gun laws, it seems impossible to start anywhere but with firearms. @BethanyRodgers, can you give us a rundown of the proposals in this area in this year’s session?
Bethany Rodgers (government reporter): Sure, there are quite a few. Just yesterday, exactly one year since Parkland, the House passed a resolution basically saying that Utah’s current gun laws are sufficient to keep residents safe, and the state needs to focus more on enforcement. The bill’s sponsor says he didn’t mean to imply that all new gun laws would be a bad idea but has said he’s particularly opposed to the “red flag” bill being sponsored by Rep. Stephen Handy. Versions of that proposal have passed in several states since Parkland happened, and basically, the law would allow the courts to disarm people who are in danger of hurting themselves or others.
Benjamin Wood (government reporter): Because why vote against a bill you oppose when you can run a whole non-binding resolution?
Rodgers: There’s also a bill by Rep. Steve Eliason promoting distribution of biometric gun safes and gun locks, a bill by Rep. Elizabeth Weight adding criminal penalties for people who store their guns unsafely (and where kids can access them) and a universal-background-check bill.
And a number of others ... a House committee this week passed out a bill that would strengthen the state's stand-your-ground law.
Wood: And @BethanyRodgers, the bulk of those are still tied up in rules committee, yes? At least as of the time of this chat?
Rodgers: Many of them, yes. The resolution on enforcement over new laws and the stand-your-ground bill have been on the move.
Robert Gehrke (political columnist): One more that has received some attention is “Lauren’s Law,” the bill sponsored by Rep. Andrew Stoddard that would make someone liable for loaning a gun that is used in a crime.
This was the bill proposed after Lauren McCluskey was murdered at the University of Utah campus. Like the rest of them, they’re all stuck in rules.
Wood: Relevant background, Utah has an official state gun and regularly creates an annual commemorative firearm for the Legislature.
Stevens: @gehrke, what do you make of the House resolution that passed yesterday? Is this a sign the Legislature isn’t interested in passing some of these other bills?
Gehrke: It’s interesting that the only bill that has made it out of rules seems to be the pro-gun stand-your-ground bill that Rep. Cory Maloy sponsored. It appears that there’s real reluctance to really consider anything on that front.
I do think you’ll see some of them break loose, perhaps next week. Rep. Sue Duckworth dropped a new bill this week trying to strengthen laws aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of domestic-violence perpetrators. But as is always the case up here, any gun restrictions have a VERY steep climb.
Stevens: Let’s turn to tax reform, which is shaping up to be the next big issue of the session. @bwood, we had Gov. Gary Herbert on Trib Talk this week and he said that developing an equitable, simple and sustainable tax system is his No. 1 priority for this session. Has he told us what that would look like?
Wood: In broad strokes yes, but in precise specifics, not at all.
The general idea is that we spend less of our money on traditional sales of goods, and more on services. So our economy, they say, is failing to generate the kind of robust tax growth we see on the income side.
This week was spent making that case to lawmakers. And next week, in theory, they’ll start getting down to the business of choosing new things to tax, like lawn care, ride-sharing services and things of that nature. The only specific I’ve gotten from the sponsor is that car detailing will be taxed, and those weird game tablets on the tables at Chili’s.
Stevens: Separately from that, Utah senators want a $150 million sales-tax cut. Can you tell us how their proposal is different from the governor’s?
Wood: That’s a pretty traditional cut, so it just drops the rate. They say they promised to cut taxes once the state got the ability to tax online sales, but there’s a general understanding that bill will either be folded into the governor’s plan or will be a plan-B if all the reform talks go belly-up
Stevens: How does online sales tax play into all of this?
Wood: Not as much as they had hoped? For years lawmakers made a big deal of Amazon and [the like] getting unfair treatment by skipping sales taxes. The Supreme Court finally gave the green light to tax them, and it hasn’t generated as much revenue as the state expected.
Rodgers: And the revenue that it’s expected to generate is pretty much spoken for at this point, right @bwood?
Wood: Yeah, it’s all gone.
But independent of the dollar figure, lawmaker’s say fair’s fair and it’s good they’re being taxed, and the overall rate should float down as a result.
Gehrke: It seems like the numbers they were throwing around were wildly optimistic. And then the state cut separate deals with all of the big retailers to collect sales tax.
Wood: That’s compounding this tax-reform argument. There was a sales tax surplus this year, but they spent all of it on the new prison build.
Stevens: What should we expect to see next as Herbert works to sell lawmakers on his yet-to-be-defined vision on tax reform?
Wood: What we’re waiting for is the big list of new things that will be taxed. Lobbyists are already sharpening their knives, and once that starts coming out, it could be all-out war.
Gehrke: This is exactly what we should expect.
I would be SHOCKED if there's any serious sales tax reform at the end of this session.
Wood: We should say, this whole thing has the potential to blow up spectacularly. They’re going to try really hard to sell this as a cut, but the end result is Utahns paying a little bit more, a lot more of the time.
Gehrke: Sure they’ll cut some taxes here and there, but cutting sales tax is going to be hard because, as Ben said, all the money is spoken for. And cutting income tax means taking money from education.
Nobody seems to have the stomach to tangle with doctors and lawyers and accountants and real estate lobbies, and that’s where the real sales tax revenue could come from. So they’ll punt.
Stevens: Floor time is about to start, so let’s move quickly to a lighter proposal moving through the session. Salt Lake City signaled last year that it would take a closer look at its flag and now the Legislature is following suit with dueling proposals to change the state flag. @bwood, why are we spending so much time talking about flags?
BECAUSE FLAGS MATTER, @tstevens.
Stevens: @bwood, so what would it take for us to get a new state flag? Is this something that’s going to happen this session?
Wood: I can say confidently it won’t be this session. There was a proposal to do exactly that, swap it out now, and a committee was un-enthused about it
More likely is that some sort of review process could be set up, and we’d be maybe looking at votes on new flags in a year or two.
And to answer the question you asked, the reason we’re talking about this is because a city/state/national flag is a big piece of a community identity. And as it stands, Utah’s flag is functionally identical to half the state flags in the country.
Stevens: @gehrke, people seem pretty fired up about flags right now. But do you think this a proposal that’s worth the time and debate?
Gehrke: I mean, it’s fine. People get more fired up about flags and daylight savings than anything else. But I don’t think the flag debate is sapping energy from other debates, up here at least, and the public is obviously really interested in it. It won’t change the world. But I suppose any time people pay attention to what their legislators do, it’s a plus.
It would be nice if the public paid as much attention and devoted as much energy to, oh, I dunno, health care or criminal justice or any of the other stuff. But you know, flags seem to be where it's at.
Wood: If I could rattle off one last topic before we break.
Stevens: Please do.
Wood: The House has, once again, voted to end letter grades for schools. This has been an inordinately controversial and problematic program in education, and the House was nearly unanimous in saying “stop.” But the Senate has always clung to grades, particularly because the former Senate president was the original sponsor. So I, for one, am curious to see what the new Senate does with that bill.
Stevens: Any proposals you’ll watching that you want to mention as we head into week four, @BethanyRodgers and @gehrke?
Gehrke: I think next week we should watch for two pretty controversial issues to start moving and perhaps even moving with a broad consensus — those would be hate crimes legislation and a ban on conversion therapy for LGBT individuals.
There has been a lot of work put into those two and I think they’re close to agreements on them.
Wood: The hate-crimes bill always seems to be one week away. It’s been on the bubble for a long time
Bethany Rodgers: I just covered a hearing on the bill that some worry would open the door for depleted uranium disposal in Utah. The proposal has been zooming through the Legislature, but the governor does NOT seem crazy about it. So I’m curious to see if one of those rare vetoes could be in store.
Gehrke: The gov’s office has really tamped down that depleted uranium bill. I think there are still problems with it. And in the meantime, the study on whether it’s safe (which has been ongoing for seven years) is nearing completion and could be out this summer or fall.
Stevens: On that note, we’ll end this week’s Trib Caucus. Thanks to our reporters on the Hill for making the time and to our readers for tuning in. See you next week!