Robert Gehrke: Here are four bills Utah Gov. Spencer Cox should veto

And there’s one he might want to veto first.

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At the opening of the 2021 legislative session, in his first State of the State address, Gov. Spencer Cox offered, perhaps, some foreshadowing.

While he urged legislators to work toward compromise, and promised to do the same,he said that “does not mean that we should never disagree.”

I’m going to veto some of your bills — probably more than my predecessors. Please don’t take it personally. You are going to override some of those vetoes. I promise not to take that personally. It doesn’t mean that I’m bad or you’re weak. It is simply part of a process,” he said. “A gloriously messy and inspired process.”

We’re now in the third act of that “gloriously messy and inspired process,” as Cox, between now and March 26 must decide which bills to sign and which to veto.

The good news is many of the worst bills were culled in the process — which means the process worked. The ban on transgender athletes and medical procedures for transgender minors, a pair of heavy-handed proposals from the billboard companies, a big hike of the electric vehicle fees, and a push to do away with the overwhelmingly popular signature path to the ballot all were defeated.

But a few got through, ideas that were either flawed from the start or not quite fully baked. Here are four bills worthy of the governor’s veto.

SB228, Electronic Free Speech Amendments

There is this notion out there that, in cracking down on conspiracy theories, hate speech and election misinformation, social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have been unfairly targeting conservative ideas.

The solution, offered by Sen. Mike McKell, is for Utah to require social media companies to set up an appeals process for account holders who have had posts moderated and gives the state attorney general the authority to investigate violations of the terms of service.

That is problematic, because it’s means the state is telling a private corporation how to conduct business and is interfering with interstate commerce. Those issues were laid out in a memo written by legislative lawyers, who cautioned the bill could be vulnerable if it was challenged in court, but the measure passed anyway. If Cox signs the bill into law, it will buy the state a lawsuit that it will lose, wasting taxpayer money.

There’s a bonus if Cox makes this his first-ever veto: McKell is Cox’s brother-in-law, so family get-togethers would be that much more fun.

HB220, Pre-trial Detention Amendments

Last year, the Legislature passed a significant bail reform measure, the notion being that bail creates a two-tiered system of justice — one for those who can afford bail and get out of jail no matter how dangerous and one for those who don’t pose a risk but can’t afford bail. These poorer people spend more time behind bars.

The bill took effect Oct. 1, and opponents, led by the Utah Sheriffs Association, say it hasn’t worked and has led to more people absconding. The data is inconclusive, at best.

Sen. Todd Weiler set up a working group to discuss how the changes are working, but his bill was rejected in favor of HB220, which repeals significant portions of last year’s reforms, despite vocal opposition from public defenders, prosecutors in Salt Lake, Davis and Utah counties, the state Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, victim rights groups and others.

During debate in the Senate, Weiler offered a point-by-point dismantling of the bill, which I won’t recount here, but the upshot is: People without means will be held, violent criminals could have to be released, the new bill removes any incentive for all parties to try to reach a compromise, and, as it is written, is chock full of contradictory and nonsensical language.

What we had last year was a discriminatory and unjust system that the Legislature tried to fix. They didn’t get it perfect, but HB220 would revert to a fundamentally flawed system and hinder efforts to get the balance right.

HB294, Pandemic Emergency Powers Amendments

This is the COVID “endgame” bill that got a lot of attention. As it was initially proposed, public health safeguards would go away once Utah reached certain case-count and vaccination thresholds.

Letting politicians drive these decisions rather than science is problematic, but it’s better than joining those states that have thrown caution to the wind. Rep. Paul Ray at least worked with the Health Department and the metrics he landed on were reasonable — fewer than about 447 new cases a day, COVID-19 patients occupying fewer than 15% of ICU beds and half the population having a first dose of the vaccine.

However, an amendment added in the Senate — ending all mask mandates effective April 10 — makes the data-driven thresholds window dressing and the bill just an arbitrary repeal.

Our numbers have been good the past several weeks and hopefully we’ll continue to make progress and easing restrictions won’t be a mistake.

But much of Europe is seeing another surge, driven in large part by the mutant strains of the virus. And we’re seeing more cases here at home. In the five weeks after the first case of the UK variant was identified in Utah, the Health Department detected 12 more cases. In the two weeks since, they’ve identified 21 more.

We all hope it’s a blip. If it’s not and we see cases start to pick up again, we shouldn’t impede the Health Department’s ability to respond. This bill would do that, although Cox has said he would sign it.

HB72, Device Filter Amendments

We get it. The Utah Legislature doesn’t like pornography. But this bill — requiring all smartphones and tablets sold in the state after Jan. 1, 2022, have porn filters installed and enabled — opens a whole can of worms.

It has some of the same interstate commerce problems as McKell’s social media bill I mentioned above, but it also seems unworkable. It’s hard to envision Apple and Google installing and enabling software just on phones destined for Utah, so it would presumably fall to your cellphone provider.

Any parent whose child accesses pornography on an unfiltered phone could sue the company. It allows a civil penalty of $10 per violation.

And to what end? So parents don’t have to go to the trouble of figuring out how to install a filter, or so kids have to figure out how to get around it?

This isn’t about being in favor or against porn. It’s about lawmakers mandating an unworkable solution. There’s a simpler approach: Let parents parent.

Correction: March 10, 12:42 p.m. • The story has been updated to remove a reference to a social media review board, which was taken out of the bill by a House amendment.