Just days away from the Friday midnight close of the annual legislative session, Utah lawmakers waded through hundreds of bills and funding requests last week, advancing measures to change primary elections, hand out some tax relief and crack down on abuses at treatment centers for troubled youths.
The Republican-dominated Legislature spent serious time and attention on locking down GOP control of its candidate-nominating process, ensuring that only party loyalists would have a say in picking its office seekers, with minimal interference from other voters, independent or Democratic.
A proposal that could sweep away Utah’s system for nominating candidates for elected office gained steam in the Legislature, clearing its first big hurdle in the Senate.
SB205 gives political parties the option of eliminating a signature-gathering path to the primary ballot — something Republican Party insiders have been pushing for since the current system was enacted in 2014.
Senators late Thursday narrowly voted down the measure only to revive it less than an hour later and pass it in an initial vote. The House, in previous years, has supported efforts to do away with signature gathering for candidates seeking a spot on the primary ballot and returning the decision to a few thousand delegates in the GOP state convention.
If the signature path had not been established, Rep. John Curtis would not be in Congress. And several high-profile GOP primary elections from last year would have looked much different. For example, the four-way contest for the Republican nomination for governor would have been a two-person affair between Spencer Cox and Greg Hughes, because former Gov. Jon Huntsman lost in the GOP convention.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, warned colleagues against adopting SB205, saying it would almost certainly lead to a referendum to restore signature gathering and, perhaps, wipe out the nominating power of party conventions altogether. Polls have shown that Utahns favor the ability of candidates to get on the primary ballot by gathering signatures.
In another piece of legislation seen as an attempt to ensure that conservative Republican insiders control the party’s nominating authority, senators gave initial approval to HB197, a bill that would make it harder for voters to switch party affiliation ahead of an election.
The bill passed 19-6 on its first of two Senate votes after already having won approval of the House. It would prevent party switching after March 31 in an election year. If voters modified their registration after that date, it would not take effect until after the primary election in June.
The effort comes after tens of thousands of Utah voters became Republicans ahead of last June’s primary election to cast a vote in the hotly contested GOP primary for governor. And its practical effect would be to lock out last-minute switchers from those primaries, which allow only registered Republicans to cast a ballot.
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo and the bill’s Senate sponsor, said the measure would prevent people from “gaming” the system — as he contends some prominent Democrats did last year in the GOP primary for governor.
A new study, however, has indicated that Democrats actually didn’t have much of an impact on last year’s Republican primary. That report, from the Princeton University Electoral Innovation Lab, concluded that most of those who switched were unaffiliated voters becoming Republicans rather than Democrats jumping parties.
Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, criticized the bill as an attempt to cut out many voters from participating in the selection of candidates who make it to the November election.
“This is cumbersome, burdensome,” she said, “and it’s creating an extra layer of [obfuscation] to get a vote [Utahns] would like to participate in.”
$100 million in tax cuts
It appears tax cuts — first promised in 2019 — are finally on the way. Legislative leaders are pushing $100 million in reductions, targeting families with dependent children, Social Security recipients and military retirees.
The proposed tax-relief package contains nearly $53 million toward fixing Utah’s income tax dependent exemption (SB153), which was a victim of Donald Trump’s tax cuts in 2017. Changes at the federal level impacted how the per-dependent state tax exemption in Utah was calculated. The result was a de facto tax hike for many Utah families.
Next, lawmakers have settled on $17 million to expand a state tax credit for retirees on Social Security (HB86). Utah is one of a handful of states taxing Social Security income.
The third piece of the tax cut plan is approximately $44 million for retired military members and a tax credit for Social Security recipients (SB11). However, retirees on Social Security can claim only one of the two tax credits under consideration.
Regulating ‘troubled teen’ industry
A bill that would put in place new regulations for Utah’s “troubled-teen” industry appears headed to the governor’s desk.
SB127, sponsored by Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, sailed through a House committee after previously passing the Senate unanimously.
There’s been no public opposition to the legislation.
If enacted, it would mark the first time in 15 years that Utah legislators increased regulations on the nearly 100 youth residential treatment centers.
McKell estimated that there are about 5,600 kids currently at residential treatment programs in Utah, the majority of which are for-profit, private companies. He noted that while some former residents, like celebrity Paris Hilton, have shared stories of abuse they say they endured decades ago, many of these issues still persist.
McKell’s bill would require treatment centers to document any instance in which staff used physical restraints and seclusion, and to submit reports to the Utah Office of Licensing, which is the industry’s primary regulator. It would prohibit programs from sedating residents or using mechanical restraints, like a straitjacket, without the office’s prior authorization.
The bill also would require four state inspections each year, both announced and unannounced — four times as frequently as public records show the office currently inspects most facilities.
One of the driving forces pushing for reform is the online movement Breaking Code Silence, an activist group of former residents who say they were mistreated at centers in Utah and elsewhere.
Not a single transgender girl is known to be participating in school sports anywhere in Utah. But the issue has caused a great deal of sound and fury on Capitol Hill.
A controversial bill that would bar transgender girls from K-12 sports was tripped up in a Utah Senate committee after passing the House. The measure wasn’t killed outright. Instead, the committee meeting was adjourned without a vote, leaving it unclear if HB302 still has a chance before the March 5 adjournment of the Legislature.
The proposal’s sponsor, Rep. Kera Birkeland, brought forward a substitute version of the measure Wednesday that would have barred these transgender students from competing during competitions between schools but that still allowed them to participate in public school athletics in other cases.
Birkeland, R-Morgan, said the changes to the bill came after working with Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and Gov. Spencer Cox, who told reporters that he was “not comfortable” with the existing language of the bill.
Birkeland said she was not trying to make anyone feel excluded but wanted to protect girls sports. “Inclusion cannot come at the cost of fairness,” she said, contending that transgender athletes have an unfair physiological advantage.
During public comment, several members of the transgender community — as well as parents of transgender children — urged lawmakers to vote against it, arguing that passage would send a harmful message to transgender students who already struggle with belonging in the conservative state.
Bill opponents have also argued that its passage could undermine Utah’s prospects for hosting future sports tournaments and even the Olympics, given the probability that event organizers would choose to boycott the state, a concern raised again Wednesday. And legislative attorneys have warned that there is a “significant risk” a judge would find the law unconstitutional.
Electric cars and cellphones
Twenty-two states have banned use of hand-held cellphones while driving. Utah is not one of them and appears unlikely to join the group for some time to come.
The well-rehearsed arguments against it largely revolved around the idea that it would encroach on personal liberty. There was also the slippery slope claim — that once you started down the path of restricting possible distractions for motorists, where would it end.
“I just worry that I’m going to be restricted from holding a hamburger, holding a soda, holding my wife’s hand,” Rep. Michael Petersen, R-North Logan, said. “And so, I just don’t know where this ends.”
Supporters — including crash victims, law enforcement, paramedics and insurance companies — argued unsuccessfully that allowing distracted driving infringes even more on the rights of innocent people hurt or killed because of it.
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, has pushed the bill unsuccessfully for years and said she has no plans to stop bringing it up.
On another transportation front, the Utah House voted 44-27 to kill a bill that had sought to impose up to a fivefold increase on registration fees for electric and hybrid vehicles.
Even amending the bill to slash the proposed fee hikes and spread them out over several years could not save HB209 against arguments that it would hurt the sale of clean-air vehicles, and thus cripple efforts to reduce air pollution.
Reporters Bryan Schott, Taylor Stevens, Lee Davidson, Jessica Miller and news editor Dan Harrie contributed to this article.