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Trib Caucus: Dead or alive (or maybe half dead)? From abortion to tax reform, here’s where some of the major bills moving through the Legislature currently stand.

(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.

Taylor Stevens (politics reporter): Welcome to this week’s Trib Caucus Slack chat, which convenes weekly during the 2019 legislative session. We’re 31 days in (out of 45) and the clock is ticking.

This week, we’re going to run through some of the biggest bills in play in the state Legislature and estimate their vitality for racing through both chambers before March 14. Just keep in mind that a bill is never *truly* dead until midnight on the final day of the session.

Let’s start with tax reform which, the last time we talked, appeared to be *the* item of the session. But we’ve received relatively few details since then. What do we know so far about who might be taxed?

Benjamin Wood (politics reporter):

Trib Caucus

Bethany Rodgers (politics reporter): Well, I’ll start with the easy stuff — the sales tax exemptions that could go away. There are 15 of them that would be eliminated under the bill (which was just released last night), and here they are:

∙ Vending machine food

∙ Utah-made aircraft

∙ Newspapers

∙ Personal property trade-ins (vehicle trade-ins, in other words)

∙ Electricity for ski lifts

∙ Ski resort equipment

∙ Purchases on unassisted amusement devices (like the tabletop tablets at Applebee’s)

∙ Admission to college athletic events

∙ Water

∙ Machinery/equipment bought by filmmakers to produce certain media

∙ Address lists for direct mail

∙ Textbooks

∙ Database access (for software downloads)

∙ Exterior car washes

∙ Laundromats

Wood: Oh really, textbooks are on the list?

Rodgers: Yep. The bill also calls for a transfer tax on sales of residential and commercial property and a health insurance premium tax.

But the biggest — and most difficult to summarize — tax expansion called for by the legislation is a change that would apply the sales tax to a wide variety of service transactions.

Wood: @BethanyRodgers, I asked you this a few days ago and it was murky then. *Who* pays the transfer tax? Buyer or seller?

Rodgers: @bwood, I asked the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tim Quinn, that question, and he told me the buyer and seller would work out who pays how much of the transfer tax.

Stevens: Last I heard, they still haven’t released this bill, right?

Rodgers: They just released the bill (all *257* pages) last night.

Stevens: Just some light reading.

Wood: To be fair, any tax bill has a high page count. I’m a little impressed it’s *only* 257.

Stevens: Is it more difficult for a proposal that’s been introduced this late in the session to get through, or does this one have enough momentum behind it?

Wood: So I, for one, would quibble a little bit with this being late in the session. We’ve seen big bills that literally drop on the very last day, or penultimate day. By comparison this is a marathon

Stevens: Fair enough. (Cough. Inland port. Cough.)

Rodgers: This definitely has a lot of momentum behind it, but I do think industry groups will be trying to slow it down. I just spoke with the president of a big construction association this morning, and he told me he’d like a work group to take a look at this over the interim rather than pushing a bill through this session.

Wood: Precisely. The caveat being that this is a huge proposed change to the tax structure and the earlier the better. And its unclear why they waited until the session had begun to start talking about this (if that is in fact what they did).

@BethanyRodgers, do we have a number for the tax *cut* portion of the bill? I.e. the big $200 million target they were trying to hit?

Rodgers: $0.

Wood: Well, OK then.

Rodgers: The bill is revenue-neutral as written.

They do hope that if the budget has space, they can cut the income tax rate even more for an overall tax reduction.

Stevens: Based on what you’ve both said, I’m going to say there’s some real interest from lawmakers in passing this through this session and stamp this bill as very much *alive.* But, as with most everything, we’ll have to wait and see.

Wood: I would agree this bill has a strong pulse. They’ve been punting on tax reform for years and it really is getting to the point where their options are getting limited.

Stevens: Let’s turn to a bill the House passed on Tuesday that would ban elective abortions after 18 weeks gestation — a proposal that nearly everyone has acknowledged would likely trigger a lawsuit, if passed. Is it expected to pass the Senate?

Stevens: Why approve a bill that may not pass constitutional muster? Is this an effort to get Utah to the Supreme Court to undermine the landmark Roe v. Wade case?

Wood: This is an effort to get re-elected.

Look, once this bill is enacted, it *will* be challenged and struck down in court. The lower courts don’t really have any other option. And the idea that SCOTUS would take up *this* case is a longer-than-long shot.

This is all about signaling to the voters that the Utah Legislature is serious about abortion, to the point of committing millions of dollars to fight the issue up the judicial system.

Rodgers: I agree with Ben. And I will note that the millions of dollars figure is an estimate of how much it would cost if the state pressed their case all the way to the Supreme Court and lost.

Wood: That is true, so maybe it will only cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Rodgers: Exactly — it might not be as massive a commitment as the bill’s supporters have been representing.

Stevens: Is there any chance the governor would veto this bill?

Wood: Some, but little.

Rodgers: He’s been pretty vague about his opinion so far, right @bwood?

Wood: Yeah he hasn’t committed, but when we’ve asked him about it he’s talked about how some fights are worth fighting no matter the cost, which suggests he’s not opposed to this type of thing.

Stevens: After floundering in past sessions, it looks like we can mark this bill as *very healthy.*

Wood: It’s reached viability, for sure.

Stevens: Speaking of bills that haven’t succeeded in the past but appear to be doing better this year…

Roughly a dozen states have called for a constitutional convention, and the Utah Senate has now joined the call. The proposal still has to go through the House, but I think this is the first year in recent memory it’s made it through the Senate. What’s changed, @bwood?

Wood: The short answer is that instead of starting in the House, it started in the Senate this year.

That alone doesn’t explain why the chamber voted for something they’ve defeated in the past, so it’s probably a combination of time and new membership.

Stevens: Can you explain why Utah lawmakers say they want a constitutional convention?

Wood: There’s a general distaste for the federal government, and a general belief that the scales have tipped away from state’s rights and toward central authority over time.

So the idea is if the people we send to Washington to fix the problem can't do it, then we fix the problem ourselves (themselves).

This is an odd debate, because traditionally oppositional groups on the left and right hate the idea of a con-con. So you have this amorphous coalition of supporters that, at least this year, was able to push it through the Senate.

Stevens: Since this resolution has passed in the House before, I’m going to say it has the vitality to do it again. Or do you think that the chamber has shifted too much?

Wood: That’s a good question. We have a lot of new people in the House and this bill is harder to anticipate where people land. There’s also a sense that it’s easy to vote on this when you think the Senate will kill it (like they did in the past), where now a ‘yes’ vote in the House would actually add Utah’s name to the list of states.

Stevens: Interesting. In that case, let’s mark this one *half alive.*

I also want to talk quickly about hate crimes. Sen. Daniel Thatcher’s hate crimes bill — which passed unanimously through a Senate committee last week — has a time certain hearing on the Senate floor on Monday.

It hasn’t seen a hearing since 2016. My question is, do we think a number of recent hate crimes in Salt Lake City and beyond will be enough to push this one through the Senate? Or will it die on the floor?

Wood: Thatcher has said all along that he knew he’d have support in committee, but that the floor would be “close.” This one is really hard to predict.

Rodgers: I’ve heard various predictions about what’ll happen on the floor, most saying it’ll be within a five-vote margin.

Wood: The final version of the bill added *a lot* of new categories in an effort to win people over. The Senate president is on board though, and that’s significant.

Stevens: We’re right down to the wire with floor time about to start, but before we end, I’d like to hear from everyone about a bill they’re following that’s either *dead* or *half-dead* (or half alive, depending on your proclivities).

Wood: I have it on good authority that a new version of the STATE FLAG bill be in committee soon

Stevens: Any idea what the new flag bill would do that the other one doesn’t, @bwood?

Wood: The original bill wanted to commission to study whether there *should* be a new flag. I"m told the new version will just go ahead and launch the process of evaluating new designs.

Rodgers: One that jumps to mind for me is Rep. Sandra Hollins’ resolution on removing the slavery exemption from the Utah Constitution. It passed the House unanimously with a lot of hoopla a couple weeks ago, but it hasn’t been heard from since.

It’s still stuck in the Senate Rules Committee at this point. I’ll be interested to see if the Senate tries to let it die a quiet death.

Wood: @BethanyRodgers does Hollins’ resolution have a Senate sponsor?

Rodgers: Sen. Jake Anderegg.

Wood: Interesting. He’s on the Rules Committee.

Stevens: For me, I’m watching a bill that would allow communities to strike out and create their own county without a majority vote from the county they would leave behind. This one has a lot of drama and has support from cities in southwestern Salt Lake County like Riverton, Herriman, West Jordan and Copperton, as well as some folks from San Juan County.

This one is still awaiting a floor debate, and I’m told the sponsor is making some changes. But we’ll have to wait and see if that’s enough to get this one past its hurdle in the House. I’m going to call it *half alive*.

Wood: @tstevens I tend to think the momentum is going away on that county bill. It’s been circled for what feels like a lifetime.

Rodgers: I agree, @bwood. That bill has opposition from all over the state and from the Utah Association of Counties.

Wood: The argument for it has been a little unclear, also. From your story @tstevens it sounds like the south-county folks want the tool more than they want a new county.

Stevens: Maybe we’d better call it *half dead* then.

Morning floor time is starting, so let’s call this a wrap. Thanks for tuning in, and catch up with us next week as the clock really starts ticking.

Readers, what’s your take on the status of these bills? Do you think hate crimes will move past the Senate? Will the state flag resolution be resurrected? Let us know in the comments.

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

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