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Trib Caucus: Inside tax reform and behind the fury of LGBT advocates over the conversion therapy debate

(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. With just days left in the session, lawmakers have this week voted to formally call for a convention of states to propose, debate and potentially ratify amendments to the United States Constitution; are pushing through another bill related to the inland port, a massive distribution hub planned for Salt Lake City’s westernmost side; and are taking steps toward a new state flag.

But arguably the biggest news of the week is that LGBTQ advocates are fuming after a proposed ban on conversion therapy — a widely discredited practice that looks to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity — was dismantled on Tuesday. Bethany, how have they responded?

Bethany Rodgers (politics reporter): They’re furious.

Yesterday, Equality Utah’s executive director, Troy Williams, and Taryn Hiatt of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention resigned from the governor’s youth suicide prevention task force in protest.

Benjamin Wood (politics reporter): The bill’s sponsor has essentially suffocated his own bill.

Robert Gehrke (politics commentator): It was really a crushing defeat. The advocates spent SO much time working with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (formerly the Mormons), that they were kind of blindsided by the therapists out there who came out of the woodwork to defend conversion therapy and their ability to force the governor to do a complete 180.

Rodgers: Yeah, Troy Williams accused the governor of turning his back on LGBTQ teens by supporting the weakened version of the bill.

Basically, he said he wasn’t interested in being a token gay guy on a suicide task force that wasn’t really serious about doing anything to address suicide among LGBTQ youths.

Wood: The governor’s support here was interesting. He had called some forms of conversion therapy “barbaric” but then during the meeting gave a thumbs up to the new version. That kind of sealed the deal in committee, right @BethanyRodgers?

Rodgers: It definitely seemed like the governor’s support for the sub was the death knell for the bill, @bwood.

Gehrke: Both Troy Williams from Equality and Rep. Hall say there is just too much risk that if a bill passes it will be this substitute version that Rep. Karianne Lisonbee proposed and that will be far, far worse than having nothing on the books. So they let it die and decided to spend the summer working on some *ahem* conversions.

Wood: Ay yi yi, @gehrke.

Stevens: So will the substitute bill move forward, or are any conversion therapy bills finished for this session?

Wood: It’s toast.

Gehrke: It’s done for the session, Taylor. They could probably get something out of the House and try to fix it in the Senate. If they don’t, they could let it die there. But they don’t want to risk it.

Wood: In theory you don’t need the sponsor’s permission to keep a bill going, but there’s an unwritten rule that if the sponsor is done, it’s done.

Gehrke: There has been this ongoing knock on the governor that if you want his support on an issue that you just have to be the last person to talk to him. That weather-vane criticism is maybe a little harsh, but seems to have played out here.

And I’ll go ahead and plug my own criticism of the politics on this bill right here:

A handful of Utah ideologues should be ashamed for choosing discredited quackery over protecting LGBTQ youth. There was a time when people would take doses of mercury for just about any ailment. No, it didn’t really help. Often it made things worse, sometimes much worse. And there was a chance it could result in death.

Stevens: @gehrke, some lawmakers have argued it is best to make *some* movement on conversion therapy — even though the bill’s sponsor has recognized the changes wouldn’t effectively stop the practice. What do you think? Is incremental better than nothing?

Gehrke: I think the argument on the other side is that this is not incremental movement. Lisonbee’s proposed changes essentially protect the practitioners rather than prohibit the practice.

And I'm inclined to agree. Given the choice between a bill that appears to do nothing good and actually could be really, really bad and getting nothing this session, punting seems like a decent option.

Wood: In the immortal words of Sen. Jake Anderegg: “Doing nothing is always an option.”

Gehrke: The dynamics of that hearing were very interesting, though. You had a young man testifying about the harm that was caused when he went through conversion therapy, and then minutes later you had HIS conversion therapist defending the practice. Drama!

And a last thought: You have a governor who calls it barbaric. You have a Lt. Gov. in Spencer Cox who has won national praise for being a supporter of the LGBTQ community. And neither of them engaged in this in a meaningful or constructive way.

Rodgers: You also had people being shipped in from Arizona by Family Watch International to testify against the bill.

Gehrke: Family Watch International: The folks who brought you the “don’t change your gender on a birth certificate” bill. The numbers the conversion therapists turned out in was striking to speak in support of a practice that every credible psychological organization in the country and the LDS Church have both disavowed.

Stevens: Definitely a conversation we’ll continue to watch, but let’s turn for now to taxes.

The reform bill that’s being presented, as I understand it, would (among other things) expand the state’s sales tax to almost all service transactions — including housekeeping, manicures, travel agencies and funerals. There seems to be a lot of concern about the impacts this will have on small businesses. Have they been lobbying to slow this down?

Gehrke: Is there a bill? It feels like it’s trying to staple jello to the wall.

Wood: We’ve known this was coming for a while but this week really seemed like a turning point for opponents. We’re starting to see more and more business community types voicing concerns.

Rodgers: There’s definitely been an effort to slow the bill down.

Which really seems to annoy the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tim Quinn, who said during a hearing the other day that those same industry folks are all about full-speed-ahead when it’s something *they* want.

Wood: The process behind this has really been something. Assuming it passes, this will be a *generational* shift in Utah tax policy, and yeah, two weeks is a lot of time at the Legislature, but one can’t help but wonder why this had to happen the way it did.

Stevens: Do you think it has enough momentum to get through the Legislature in the next week?

Wood: The answer to that question is always the same: If leadership wants it, they get it.

Stevens: OK. Does leadership want it?

Wood: In this case, leadership appears to want it. So momentum is somewhat irrelevant.

Gehrke: I think both House and Senate leaders want something. I can’t tell if it’s the same thing. And that’s where this might fall apart.

Wood: Good point, @gehrke.

We’re now starting to hear about the pressure they’re putting on members to fall in line. Rep. Phil Lyman accidentally voiced that pressure in a reply-all email to the entire House.

Rodgers: The reply-all was one of my favorite moments of the week.

Wood: Dear legislators, please reply-all more often.

Gehrke: The delayed implementation gives them cover. “We’ll come back and fix what needs to be fixed.” But one of the problems is that nobody can really say right now how the bill affects taxpayers or a lot of businesses for that matter.

Wood: That’s the big glaring hole in all these debates. We have yet to see a clear, crisp estimate on what the average Utahn will pay.

Gehrke: They say a typical family will save $664. But it was revenue neutral (at the time) and so someone has to pay more. My gut tells me it’s business and, frankly, not big businesses who have lawyers and accountants in-house. It is going to be small businesses who have to contract for those services.

Stevens: There’s one (OK, maybe not just one) piece of this bill I can’t wrap my head around. It would cut money from schools, but the House speaker says it’s still in the best interest of public education. How does that work?

Wood: Oh, boy. I can explain, but it’s wonky.

Stevens: Maybe just the Sparknotes version, @bwood?

Wood: OK, let me use a metaphor. What they want to do is turn down the faucet on the Income tax (which is Education funding) and turn up the faucet on sales tax (which can fund anything). And they’re promising that they’ll make up the cut to education with the new sales tax money, through the higher education budget.

So *if* they keep their word then yes, in theory, this could result in the same amount of money spent on schools, just from different sources. I had an article about this dynamic a few weeks ago. They’d be reversing a yearslong trend of pulling sales tax money *out* of education.

Gehrke: And, as Ben noted in that piece, the reason they have to reverse this yearslong trend of pulling money out of education is because they’re almost out of sales tax money funding higher education. So they need to collect more sales tax than they have been. They’ve been playing this shell game, moving money out of higher ed to keep state government funded, and the well is nearly dry. (Pardon the mixed metaphors.)

Wood: And that’s why you’re seeing some ed folk on board. They acknowledge there’s a problem that needs fixing. It’s *how* you fix it that is causing some heartburn.

And again, to try and massage all of this in the final two weeks of the session causes yet more heartburn

Gehrke: But Ben’s point at the outset is significant. The opposition has really ramped up. Real estate, banks, travel agents, small business groups, doctors, lawyers, on and on, all coming out against it.

And of course education.

Wood: Don’t forget the new tax on newspapers!

And piano teachers.

And lawn care.

and.....

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Gehrke: I have some sympathy for Rep. Quinn’s point, though. There is a fairness issue involved. Why do some people pay the tax and some don’t? And that’s what they’re trying to get to. And for all the sky-is-falling rhetoric, MANY states tax a lot more services than Utah does and they seem to manage to not implode.

Stevens: Let’s pivot quickly to a bill that has stalled in the Legislature for the last few sessions but got further than it has in years on Monday. The Utah Senate passed a hate crimes bill in its first hearing since 2016 — a major victory for the proposal’s sponsor, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, and the advocates who have been pushing for it.

Wood: @tstevens do we have any idea how the House feels about it?

Stevens: @bwood, it’s hard to tell, but Thatcher has said Rep. Lee Perry, who will be sponsoring the hate crimes bill in the House, is hopeful. Also, the vote wasn’t as close on the floor as it was expected to be, so there’s definitely some momentum pushing it into the House.

Gehrke: How’s that amendment to make reporters a protected class? The thing has kind of turned into a Christmas tree. I suspect you’ll see additional efforts to add more protected groups over in the House.

Stevens: That was my next question, @gehrke. Part of the momentum behind the bill this year is its inclusion of a number of additional protected classes, including familial status, homelessness, marital status. Do you think those additions are diluting, or does this bill *need* to protect even more people than it does now?

Gehrke: Good question. And with my usual caveat that I got my law degree from Trump University, I’d say that the original version was modeled after language that has been effective in other states. That said, politically, they needed to add these groups to get some key people on board (like Senate President Stuart Adams).

I don't know that it has diluted it. Some of the changes have probably muddied it up some and created potential problems in implementing it. But the core of the bill is still there and I think if that makes it through, that's what is most important.

Wood: Watching the discussion of the protected classes was... interesting. There’s definitely some people who think any crime committed against any member of those groups is now defaulted to a hate crime.

Stevens: This is where it’s worth noting that someone must first be convicted of a crime before a hate crimes penalty enhancement would be applicable.

Wood: And the crime must have been committed *because* of their status.

Gehrke: That is an important point that critics often overlook.

The risk hate crimes faces is that it will get the same treatment as conversion therapy, that it will get amended so severely that the product will be worse than having nothing. And the attacks will come from the same groups. So watch for that.

Stevens: Alright everyone. As we dive straight into the last week of the session, give me a quick hot take / prediction of what you think WILL or will NOT happen by midnight next Thursday.

Wood: I do not think 38 other states will join us in calling a convention before next Thursday.

Gehrke: But what about the flag, Ben? Will we get a new flag?

Wood: Ugh, so much to do so little time.

It’s currently prioritized on the House calendar. So we’ll see...

Rodgers: The higher-strength beer bill comes back to life and passes last minute.

Wood: Yeah, that bill could get spicy.

Gehrke: I like that one, Bethany. I think Sen. Jerry Stevenson has some pull in the Senate and could get that done.

Wood: “Some pull” (read: understatement).

Gehrke: But this talk of a ballot initiative if it doesn’t happen is total nonsense.

Wood: Is it though? Now that we live in a world where initiatives are just suggestions, I could see an effort to put wine in grocery stores to force lawmakers to meet them halfway with regular beer.

Stevens: My prediction is that the inland port bill introduced last week, which would increase the scope of the development, will pass through. And I think they’ll try to do it before the eve of the final day of the session to avoid more parallels to last year’s bill.

Gehrke: It’s not the hottest of hot takes, but I think the tax bill gets scaled back considerably, but they do pass something, including a sizable income tax cut. But really it serves more as a starting point for discussions in the coming months and special session to tinker with it in the summer.

Wood: Hot take!

Gehrke: Hot summer legislative action on tap.

Stevens: Morning floor time is about to start, so let’s call it a wrap.

Wood: And remember kids, friends don’t let friends share fake news.

Stevens: Readers, what do you hope to see happen before the session ends next week? What do you hope doesn’t pass through? 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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