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Five big actions from Utah lawmakers this week

The Legislature advanced a bill on new rules for youth treatment centers and another on transgender girls playing in female sports programs.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Paris Hilton after speaking on SB-127 to the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Standing Committee in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.

Utah lawmakers hit the halfway point in their 2021 general session this week. In the days to come big spending decisions will be made, while in the past week lawmakers took action on some high profile legislation. Here are five prominent bills that were up for debate.

Youth treatment

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Paris Hilton bumps elbows with Sen. Michael McKell, R-Spanish Fork, after a vote on SB-127 to the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Standing Committee in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.

Utah lawmakers pride themselves on maintaining what they consider a healthy disdain for Hollywood and popular culture. But when celebrity Paris Hilton came to the Utah Capitol last week they were surely starstruck, and the legislation Hilton came to lobby for flew out of committee and a couple days later cruised through the Senate without a single vote in opposition.

The topic of SB127, now headed to the House, is anything but glamorous. Instead it is a deadly serious bill that seeks to crack down on the use of restraints and sedatives and requires more inspections in the for-profit youth treatment centers that have proliferated in Utah.

Hilton was enrolled in one of those — Provo Canyon School — in the 1990s and her traumatizing experiences there are explored in a documentary she released last year.

The only criticisms from Utah legislators was that perhaps the bill didn’t go far enough.

Hilton said after the hearing that she cried as the senators called to not just pass the bill sponsored by Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, but to do even more.

“To hear their reaction and them wanting to add even more restrictions and more strict laws to this bill was just a dream come true,” she said. “I was just so happy.”

She called the Utah bill a “first step,” and said she will also push for legislation at a national level.

Transgender sports

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan.

If the youth treatment regulation bill lacked any whisper of dissent, quite the opposite was true of HB302, seeking to ban transgender girls from participating in female sports programs in elementary and secondary schools.

The measure squeaked out of committee Thursday on an 8-6 vote on its way to the full House, but only after two hours of brisk debate.

Sponsoring Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan and a junior varsity basketball coach for the girls’ team at Morgan High School, has said she sees the bill as a way to improve “fairness and equality with women’s sports.”

“Across America there are stories of individuals who identified as male at birth competing against our female athletes,” she told a House committee. “These individuals who identify as male at birth are breaking records that no female will be able to reach. They’re taking championships, titles and scholarships from our female athletes.”

A number of community members pushed back.

“We hear that there is not one transgender athlete playing right now in our state schools,” said Jennifer Plumb, a pediatrician and public health advocate.

By contrast, what Utah has plenty of is youth suicides, Plumb observed. “Between 2017 and 2019, we had 414 young Utahns kill themselves. We need to think about what we’re doing here when we put bills in place that already take a vulnerable population and say they do not matter.”

Lawmakers also heard a warning from one of their own attorneys telling them, if passed, the bill is almost sure to draw lawsuits. Moreover, said attorney Michael Curtis, it is “possible, if not probable, that a court would hold it unconstitutional.”

The bill next heads to the full House where it has at least one powerful supporter: Speaker Brad Wilson.

K-9s

(Screenshot via Salt Lake City Police Department/YouTube) Police body camera footage shows an interaction between a suspect and a K-9 on Jan. 25, 2020.

Utah representatives on Wednesday gave final legislative approval to a bill that will require new training for police dogs and their handlers.

SB38 mandates that every police K-9 team be certified and annually recertified. The legislation comes after The Salt Lake Tribune published bodycam footage of a Salt Lake City arrest in which an officer commanded his police dog to bite a Black man who was kneeling with his hands raised.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, has said that not only was there no opposition to his bill on Capitol Hill, but law enforcement groups were also in favor of it.

“It does raise the bar on accountability and responsibility, which is something we’ve been working very hard,” he said.

It now goes to Gov. Spencer Cox for his signature or veto.

Cosmetology

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Candice Pierucci.

Another measure soon to land on the governor’s desk has stirred a fair amount of controversy. SB87 would relax license requirements for cosmetologists, and some of them are up in arms about it.

The bill “creates an exemption from licensure under the cosmetology act for an individual who only dries, styles, arranges, dresses, curls, hot irons, shampoos, or conditions hair,” so long as that person receives a hair safety permit, and the business displays a sign informing the public that the stylist isn’t licensed.

House sponsoring Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, told a legislative committee last week that the bill would still require unlicensed cosmetologists to complete an online hygiene and sanitation course for shampooing, conditioning, blow-drying and styling — essentially, the same services they’d be allowed to perform without an official license.

The bill passed the House on Thursday after already securing Senate approval following lots of talk about the free market and overregulation.

But representatives of the industry have real concerns, including health hazards for customers and financial harm to licensed cosmetologists.

Abby Evans from the Utah Beauty School Owners’ Association said that the bill “diminishes the value of my clients’ education, skill and profession.”

SB87 needed one final Senate vote on an amendment before heading to the governor.

Online impersonation

A bill that cleared the House on Thursday without a single ‘no’ vote would make it a crime for a person to use someone else’s name to create a webpage on a social networking site and to post or send a message with intent to harm or defraud, intimidate or threaten. A first offense could be punishable as a class A misdemeanor, while a subsequent offense could be considered a third-degree felony.

HB239 is headed to the Senate for further consideration.

Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield and the sponsor of HB239, said the proposal came out of conversations with those who have seen their lives forever changed as a result of online impersonation. Some have lost their jobs or struggled to find a new one.

“In other states, crimes of online impersonation have resulted in death, in suicide,” she said. “This causes real harm.”

Reporting from CNN showed that in 2012 there were as many as 83 million fake or imposter profiles in use on Facebook, she noted.

Tribune reporters Jessica Miller, Taylor Stevens, Karina Andrew and news editor Dan Harrie contributed to this article.

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