Abortion • Legislators passed a pair of abortion bills, sparking debate about whether the state is willing to enact laws that might result in litigation. One aims to ban abortions sought solely based on a fetal Down syndrome diagnosis but postpones that prohibition until similar laws in other states are upheld. This provision would protect the state from a lawsuit, supporters said. The other measure would ban most abortions after 18 weeks and is almost certain to land in court, proponents and critics agree. But its sponsor said Utah should take a stand on the issue — even if it means running up a legal tab.
Birth certificates • Bills that dealt with gender markers on birth certificates and driver licenses didn’t get far this session. One proposal would have barred Utahns from changing the gender on their birth certificates and was denounced as transphobic by some. Another would have established a process for people to alter their listed genders. Both bills were abandoned partway through the session, and their sponsors agreed to refer the issues to interim study.
BYU police • Brigham Young University’s police department would have to disclose public records like every other police department after legislators passed a bill clarifying that police forces at private universities are subject to Utah’s open records laws. BYU officials spoke in favor of SB197 during the legislative session but had previously argued in court cases — including a lawsuit filed by The Salt Lake Tribune in 2016 — that its police department was not bound by the same transparency rules because it was a part of a private institution. The Provo school is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The newspaper has argued that BYU’s police should be held to the same standards as every other Utah law enforcement agency. The bill is not retroactive and will not directly affect lawsuits like The Tribune’s, which is pending before the Utah Supreme Court.
Cellphones • Lawmakers rejected a bill to more clearly ban use of hand-held cellphones while driving — even though polls show that three of every four Utahns favor such a law. Opponents argued it would infringe on personal liberty. As Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, said, “I don’t like a bill that has to spell out everything that is forbidden.” Supporters say it would boost safety — and noted the irony that Utah lawmakers previously said they aimed to improve safety by enacting the nation’s toughest DUI law, setting the legal blood alcohol limit at 0.05.
Civil assets • Sen. Todd Weiler sponsored a bill that would have tweaked civil-asset-forfeiture laws — a process that allows police to seize cash or property of suspected criminals, even those who have not yet been convicted of a crime. The Woods Cross Republican said his intent was to remove the incentive for any Utah police officer to take money from someone unnecessarily. The bill cleared the Senate but stalled in a House committee after police officers came out in force to oppose to it, saying the process is important to deter crime and strip criminals of ill-gotten gains. Critics of asset-forfeiture laws promised more reform efforts in future legislative sessions, saying there is concern that innocent Utahns could have their money taken from them and do not have the resources to fight the seizure in court.
Coal • Utah’s coal country soon may get a $55 million loan from the state to invest in a West Coast export terminal, courtesy of the Legislature. Rep. Mike McKell’s SB248, now awaiting the governor’s signature, would direct the Utah Community Impact Board to offer up the entire balance of its special “throughput infrastructure” cache to a “bulk commodities ocean terminal project” that someday may be built at a coastal port, most likely in Oakland, Calif, but possibly in Mexico. The hope is such a terminal will connect Utah coal to power plants in Asia.
Conversion therapy • A coalition of LGBTQ and suicide prevention advocates had high hopes this session that Utah would become the 16th state to bar therapists from trying to change the sexual orientations or gender identities of minors. Prospects for the so-called conversion therapy bill seemed promising, with two Republican legislators championing it and Utah’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, taking a neutral stance. But conservative lawmakers in a House committee — concerned the initial language would too severely limit therapists — rewrote it in a way that sparked outrage among its proponents and spelled defeat for the effort this session. Advocates vowed to return next year to fight for a ban on the dangerous practice.
County boundaries • Legislators debated a bill that would have allowed communities to strike out and create their own county without a majority vote from the county they would leave behind — a proposal that spurred interest among a lawmaker from San Juan County and from cities in southwestern Salt Lake County. The Salt Lake County Council and Utah Association of Counties opposed the measure, which failed in the House amid concerns it would disenfranchise those in the areas that would be left behind.
Depleted uranium • A divided Legislature passed a bill that could ease the pathway for depleted uranium — and other radioactive waste that grows more dangerous over time — to reach Utah for permanent disposal. Critics are urging Gov. Gary Herbert to veto HB220. The measure could bypass Utah’s 14-year-old ban on accepting Class B and C radioactive waste by requiring it to be classified at its time of acceptance.The Utah Department of Environmental Quality is reviewing EnergySolutions’ proposal to dispose of 700,000 tons of this waste, which is a byproduct from the uranium-enrichment process. It is relatively harmless in its present state, but would become deadly over many thousands of years and stay that way forever. The bill’s final version would impose a 12 percent tax on the disposal company’s receipts for any depleted uranium it takes, netting up to $24 million over 10 years.
Gun bills • Gun safety advocates presented a range of proposals this year to prevent firearms-related violence, accidents and suicides. But many of these bills struggled to gain momentum, facing pushback from gun rights lobbies. One of the proposals was “Lauren’s Law,” a bill named for slain University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey that would’ve made it easier to sue someone who loaned a weapon later used in a violent felony. The proposal died in committee. A “red flag” bill — which would allow judges to remove firearms from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others — also fizzled.
Hate crimes • After years of stalling on Capitol Hill, a bill that would strengthen the state’s hate crimes law cleared both chambers. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took a neutral stance this year on the measure, which would allow judges to increase penalties for a crime if a defendant is convicted of targeting someone based on a number of protected classes, including disability, ethnicity, gender identity, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation.
Housing • The session’s main stab at addressing housing affordability passed but only after being stripped of a provision to boost state spending on so-called gap financing for moderate-income housing projects. Stalled in House Rules until the last day, SB34 would have pumped $20 million of one-time money and $4 million yearly thereafter into the state’s Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund. That was removed, but the final version also added new strategies that cities must adopt to plan for moderate-income housing — or be ineligible to receive certain kinds of investment cash from the Utah Department of Transportation.
Immigration • Legislators approved a bill that would lower the maximum penalty for class A misdemeanors by a single day — a change that would help immigrants avoid the risk of automatic deportation. HB244 alters the maximum sentence for a class A misdemeanor, dropping it from one year to 364 days. This comes in response to a federal law that says a conviction that carries a penalty of a year or more in jail is considered an “aggravated felony” that can trigger deportation proceedings, even for those who entered the country legally. It is intended to help Utahns convicted of low-level crimes — marijuana possession, theft or criminal mischief, for example — avoid automatic deportation.
Inland port • The Utah Inland Port, a massive distribution hub planned for Salt Lake City’s westernmost area, could get bigger under a bill lawmakers passed that would expand the project’s scope from a single location to a multisite model. The Salt Lake City Council has supported the measure. Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski has opposed it and is suing over the original law creating the port.
Legacy Parkway • Two bills seeking to preserve the Legacy Parkway as it is now in Davis County ran into dead ends. On Jan. 1, a longtime ban on big-rig trucks there will disappear, and the current 55 mph speed limit there likely will be raised. Those and other environmentally friendly design features were compromises to end lawsuits with conservation groups that had blocked the highway, but were temporary. Trucking companies fought to erase the truck ban, saying its lifting had long been promised.
Marriage • Lawmakers added bigamy to the list of crimes for which victims could seek reparations from a state fund. Anyone demonstrating harm suffered in a polygamous home could seek cash for treatment, child care or other expenses. Legislative staffers estimate the payments would amount to $3,500 a year. Legislators appropriated $152,000 to teach dating violence prevention in Hildale, home of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They also passed a bill eliminating marriage for 15-year-olds. Brides and grooms would have to be at least 16 and have a parent’s consent to marry. The bill would affect all teens but was viewed as having particular relevance in polygamous families.
Red lights • Legislators momentarily advanced but ultimately snuffed out bills that would have greenlighted motorists and bicyclists to run red lights sometimes. The measure sought to allow motorists to run red lights — after stopping for 90 seconds, determining the light was not cycling properly and proceeding when the coast is clear. Law enforcement fought it as too dangerous. Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, proposed letting bicyclists run through stop signs and lights if deemed safe to do so, but the measure crashed in committee.
Seat belts • Money worries outweighed safety concerns as lawmakers rejected a bill to require seat belts on new school buses. Critics said it would tie the hands of schools that may have more pressing needs for the money. “If we’re going to mandate it, let’s fund it,” said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, countered that the state also mandates brakes and other safety equipment without funding them. “We put a criminal penalty on individuals if they don’t buckle up, if they don’t buckle up their kids,” he said. “But we put 50 kids on the bus without seat belts.”
Slavery • Lawmakers signed off on an effort to strip a slavery exemption from the Utah Constitution. Current language states that slavery is prohibited “except as a punishment for crime.” The wording mirrors a provision included in the U.S. Constitution and other state constitutions. But Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, proposed deleting that language, saying the ban on slavery should be absolute. Her resolution, which passed both chambers, will allow Utah voters in 2020 to decide on the proposed constitutional change.
Tobacco • Following the lead of several Utah cities, state lawmakers voted to raise the legal age to buy and use tobacco and e-cigarettes from 19 to 21, but not without granting a key exemption: Active-duty military members along with their spouses and dependents still can buy and use these products — even if they aren’t 21. Sponsoring Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, said the amendment is a compromise between the arguments that banning 21 and under purchases can prevent young people from becoming addicted and acknowledging that those old enough to go to war should be able to choose whether to smoke.
Tribune reporters Nate Carlisle, Lee Davidson, Sahalie Donaldson, Brian Maffly, Jessica Miller, Bethany Rodgers, Tony Semerad and Taylor Stevens contributed to this story.