‘Let’s submit designs’: New version of state flag bill would launch a review of replacement ideas

(Courtesy of The Organization for a New Utah Flag) A proposed redesign of the Utah State Flag.

Two weeks ago, a House committee declined to endorse either of a pair of bills aimed at updating the Utah State flag — one with a ready-made design for an immediate change and the other creating a large commission to study whether the flag should change at all.

Now the sponsor of the commission bill, Layton Republican Rep. Steve Handy, hopes he’s found the sweet spot between the two ideas with a planned amendment that would impanel a smaller group of experts to begin looking at and recommending new designs.

“Let’s submit designs,” Handy said. “Let’s go forward and see what we can come up with.”

Under the latest version of his bill, which has not yet been publicly released, a commission of roughly one dozen members would be created to evaluate new flag ideas and recommend as many as 40 options for potential adoption.

Those recommendations would be made by November, Handy said, and would be followed by additional legislation on the selection and implementation process if supported by lawmakers.

“If we decide that we have a new flag, the historic flag sits there — it’s fine,” Handy said. “And maybe we have two flags for a while until people mature into this thing.”

Utah’s current flag is roughly 100 years old and largely consists of the state seal superimposed upon a blue background. That style — known among flag enthusiasts as an S.O.B. or “seal on a bedsheet” — is similar to many state flags and falls short of several design ideals espoused by vexillologists, or flag experts.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Kevin Stratton introduces one of the two bills that could lead to the adoption of a new state flag to the House Government Operations committee, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019.

At the hearing of House Government Operations Committee, a flag design created by The Organization for a New Utah Flag earned praise for its sleek, modern visuals, but was also criticized as “corporate” and questioned for its incorporation of a Soviet-style red star and the date “1847," referring to the arrival in the Salt Lake Valley by Mormon settlers.

“I know that we celebrate 1847 every year as a momentous occasion in this area’s history, but it’s not when we became a state,” Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, said at the time. “I feel like 1847 would immediately exclude nearly half the population now in Utah.”

The debate over the Utah flag also comes at a time when Salt Lake City is considering a redesign of its municipal flag.

Handy said the new version of his bill will include the option of considering that flag design, albeit without the red star or 1847 date.

“We took the basic principles of the Martin flag and said this is a flag that could be considered,” Handy said.

Handy said he hopes the bill can be reconsidered by the House Government Operations Committee on Monday, potentially leaving the final two weeks of the legislative session for the proposal to make its way through the House and Senate.

Committee Chairman John Knotwell, R-Herriman, said it’s possible Handy’s proposal can be heard again, but that the committee has limited remaining opportunities to consider all of its assigned bills.

“It depends on what his [substitution] looks like and whether we have time to do it,” he said.

Handy said he’s been surprised by the level of concern and opposition raised by a discussion of changing the state flag. The representative is also sponsoring a so-called “red flag” bill this year, which would permit the courts to order a gun owner to surrender their weapons if deemed a danger to himself or others, and Handy said he’s received nearly as much feedback on the state flag as he had for red flags.

“It’s hilarious to me the pushback on this thing,” Handy said. “It’s crazy.”