Effort to update Utah’s state flag returns ahead of upcoming legislative session

(Steve Griffin | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) In this July 24, 2017, file photo, the Utah state flag waves in the morning sun at the start of the Days of '47 Parade in Salt Lake City.

As he prepares to run a bill to update Utah’s state flag for the third year in a row, Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said he’s often asked, “Why would the Legislature do this? Why would we waste the time?”

During the state’s Economic Development and Workforce Services Interim Committee on Tuesday, the lawmaker offered his defense for the importance of a new flag, arguing that “defining who we are as a people with the symbols that we choose to allow to represent us means a lot.”

Plus, McCay said, as the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, he’s “grateful for healthy distractions.”

His legislative colleagues seemed to agree that the time was ripe for a new design and gave early approval Tuesday to his proposal to create a State Banner Task Force that would study and eventually issue recommendations on an alternative flag that could fly in addition to the state’s traditional one.

“There are surprisingly strong feelings on both sides,” said Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, who has long advocated for a new flag design. “But I don’t think it’s bad that we talk about it.”

Handy said there are some states — like Colorado, Maryland, Arizona, Texas and California — where residents have strong pride in their state flag and fly it “all over the place.” But he said the state’s young people in particular do “not relate to the state flag” in Utah.

“Companies, large corporations in the United States and the world, they rebrand all the time,” he said during the meeting Tuesday. “We shouldn’t be afraid of rebranding — particularly looking at the demographics of this state, how young this state is and how vibrant. [With] a new gubernatorial administration, it’s a nice time to have this conversation.”

Under the proposal, the task force would consist of nine members, including a member of the Senate and the House of Representatives; a representative from the governor’s office and a Utah city and county; a flag expert who’s a member of a vexillological organization or association; and one appointee each from the Division of History, Board of Tourism Development and the State Board of Education.

If the bill is ultimately approved in next year’s legislative session, the task force would be required to convene on or before June 11, 2021, and would need to select up to 10 proposed flag designs that meet certain criteria by Sept. 15, 2021.

That doesn’t mean the state’s current flag — which is more than 100 years old and features the state seal emblazoned upon a blue background — will be eliminated from use. McCay’s proposal explicitly identifies the possibility that the task force could issue a recommendation to name the current state flag of Utah the official “state ceremonial flag” or give it another designation “to recognize that flag’s historical significance.”

Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, expressed support for that provision of the proposal, noting that he personally feels resistance to changing the flag over worries that “it’s a stepping away from our pioneer heritage.”

“I would recommend to this task force that we honor that and say this current flag or any previous flag of Utah will always fly at the Capitol and then add a new one,” he said. “I think that would take away some of the angst that I know I have as a history teacher. You don’t want to see those things totally gone and we could honor that.”

But Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said he thought such a move would be confusing.

“If we have two flags, which is the real flag?” he said. “Will the real flag please stand up? I don’t support this. I think we have a wonderful flag. If you want to have a symbol or emblem or logo, then come up with that. But we only need one flag and for that reason I’ll be a ‘no’ on this bill.”

While the effort to create a new state flag has stalled out over the past few years, a similar effort to update the one in Salt Lake City proved successful this year. The capital city began flying its new flag — which features a white stripe, representing “the best snow on earth,” a blue stripe to represent The Great Salt Lake and a sego lily — last month.

The new state flag proposal will receive further consideration during next year’s general legislative session.