Red meat: Culture war, states’ rights to play prominent roles in Utah’s 2024 Legislature

Republican supermajorities on Capitol Hill are poised to tackle more bills aimed at DEI, transgender individuals and perceived federal overreach.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024. Republican supermajorities on Capitol Hill are poised to tackle more bills aimed at DEI, transgender individuals and perceived federal overreach during the 2024 legislative session.

It’s an election year, so when the 2024 Utah Legislature convenes Tuesday, expect a diet with hefty helpings of red meat for a red state.

Oh, lawmakers will certainly have a tax cut on the menu, while still forking out funds for schools and housing. But, with an eye on the ballot box, they’ll also serve up hearty portions of conservative and culture war offerings — college diversity programs, transgender restrooms, anti-federal pushback, even a return, of sorts, to the gold standard.

Cutting taxes in an election year is a no-brainer for the Republican-controlled Legislature. Last month, legislative leaders set aside $160 million to drop the state’s income tax rate by 0.1%. Lawmakers also plan to tackle the state’s housing crisis and work on solutions to homelessness and energy policy, among other crucial topics.

Election years also mean lawmakers will dish up appetizers for Republican voters. Expect culture war issues to suck up a lot of political oxygen during the 45-day session.

Those right-wing policies aren’t unexpected for GOP lawmakers in a ruby-red state like Utah. And with most Republicans in safe seats, their biggest worry is fending off a potential primary challenge from their political right.

Gov. Cox and DEI policies

A similar dynamic is playing out in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Gov. Spencer Cox faces four challengers for the GOP nomination. At least three of them are jockeying to portray themselves as more conservative than the incumbent. On the surface, the Republican race for governor has little to do with the upcoming session. However, that dynamic, said Utah Valley University political science professor Steven Sylvester, could give GOP lawmakers an opening to push even further to the right.

“If I were in leadership, I would do that exact thing,” Sylvester said. “I would pressure a governor who is in a reelection contest.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox alongside Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, completes the filing of his paperwork to run for reelection on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024, at the Utah State Capitol.

That tactic works, he warned, only if Cox believes his challengers pose a threat to him winning a second term.

“We’re going to see these very controversial bills that are unpopular with a large swath of the voting public, except for the base, come out of the Legislature,” Sylvester said. “I think that will force Cox to reevaluate what bills he wants to veto or doesn’t want to veto.”

Utah’s political pendulum doesn’t only swing to the right, however. The ability for candidates to gather signatures to qualify for the primary election outside of the state’s caucus and convention system is a moderating influence.

“We have the convention system, but we also have the signature route. It forces politicians to pander to the ultraconservative political base but also not go too far to where they alienate the more moderate Republicans,” Sylvester said. “The delegates at the convention are not representative of the majority of the public in Utah. They’re just not. They may not like hearing that, but it’s just the reality.”

Seemingly aware of that fact, legislative leaders have shifted their approach in recent years.

During the 2023 session, lawmakers pushed two of the most controversial pieces of legislation through the process in the first weeks. Bills banning gender-affirming care and establishing a school voucher program, allowing public education dollars to pay for private school tuition, moved at warp speed. Ripping off that political band-aid got those controversies out of the way early, which allowed the public’s attention to switch to other issues.

Like last year, expect culture war issues to dominate the first part of this year’s session. Legislative leaders are teeing up bills targeting diversity efforts in Utah’s public colleges and universities and more anti-transgender legislation early on in 2024 session.

The assault on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on campuses by Republican lawmakers will accelerate under newly elected House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper. Speaking at the right-wing Utah Eagle Forum’s annual convention this month, he pledged to make reforming higher education in the state a top priority during his tenure.

“You would not believe all the phone calls I’ve gotten from university professors saying ‘thank you’ for standing up. You wouldn’t believe what’s going on inside our universities,” Schultz told the audience. “It’s time that we create an atmosphere inside our universities that we attract normal university professors to the state.”

Neither Schultz nor House staffers responded when asked by The Salt Lake Tribune to identify professors who contacted him or to give details on what they say is happening on campus.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, during a special legislative session in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

Targeting transgender Utahns

The Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate once again plan to put forward legislation targeting transgender Utahns. Blanding Republican Rep. Phil Lyman, who is challenging Cox for the Republican gubernatorial nod, said he’s sponsoring a bill to limit which restrooms transgender people can use.

“We’ve got this cultural situation that’s going on, and we’re trying to take care of it with policy. Our opponents criticize this and say, ‘All you want to talk about is this silly bathroom stuff,’” Lyman said when discussing his bill at the Utah Eagle Forum convention. “It’s not silly bathroom stuff. It’s our culture. It’s our children. It’s our gender. It’s those things that matter to us.”

Lyman’s bill specifies that people in public schools and universities must use restrooms and locker rooms corresponding with the gender they were assigned at birth. Anyone who uses the wrong facilities will be charged with criminal trespassing. If that violation happens at a public university, the Utah attorney general could file a civil action against the institution and seek a fine of up to $10,000 per violation.

“It’s basically saying there are boys and there are girls. This isn’t about creating a witch hunt mentality where people are looking to see if someone has masculine features or something else,” Lyman said. “This is about the state of Utah passing a normative law. Hopefully, we will have a law by the end of the session that says boys can’t use the girls’ restrooms or locker rooms, men can’t use women’s, and vice versa.”

Lyman’s measure won’t be the only proposal on the subject. Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, has sponsored a more expansive bill that would legally define a female as “an individual whose biological reproductive system is of the general type that functions to produce ova,” subsequently impacting numerous other areas of state law.

Perceived federal overreach

The 2024 session won’t only be about attacking diversity and policing restrooms. Several other proposals in the works have been inspired by the preoccupation with states’ rights and pushing back against perceived overreach by the federal government.

Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, recently unveiled SB57, which would allow the Legislature to pass a resolution ordering state officials to ignore any federal law or mandate they believe is unconstitutional. Sandall’s proposal embraces the legal theory of nullification, which asserts states can reject actions by the federal government they believe are outside the bounds of its constitutional authority.

Usually, states file a lawsuit seeking to strike down a federal law or action if they believe it’s unconstitutional. Sandall’s proposal would reverse that process.

“If we get a positive vote on that resolution, we’re going to say to our state agencies, ‘We’re not going to have you assume this is law. We think it’s wrong,’” Sandall said. “Then, if and when the federal government takes us to court and we lose some kind of a court case, we would comply. But, in the meantime, let’s just not accept everything that comes from the federal government.”

Federal courts repeatedly have shot down nullification attempts by states. The Supreme Court has ruled several times that federal law is superior to state law under the Constitution’s supremacy clause.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Trevor Lee, R-Layton, talks about HB270 school cellphone amendments, during the House Education Committee meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023.

Rep. Trevor Lee, R-Layton, combines states’ rights and the Second Amendment with HB165, which requires a federal officer to obtain written permission from a county sheriff before conducting an arrest, search or seizure related to a violation of federal gun laws. Lee’s proposal appears to share some genetic material with the far-right “constitutional sheriff” movement, which falsely believes federal and state laws are subordinate to the authority of county sheriffs.

Lawmakers approved legislation last year banning the use of a “social credit score” akin to the program used by the Chinese government to monitor citizens and punish bad behavior. This year, there’s more legislation on the table inspired by creeping concerns on the far-right about social control.

Rep. Tyler Clancy, R-Provo, is sponsoring HB164, which bans the use of digital currency from any centralized bank. The bill, modeled after similar legislation in Florida, is an offshoot of worries that the government could use a central bank to shut off citizens’ access to money as a punishment or for any number of reasons.

“I’ve seen that it can be a roundabout way of very much social credit score-esque, and very much a way to control people’s behaviors,” Clancy said, when speaking to the right-wing group Utah Citizens for the Constitution in July. “If you control the purse strings, you control pretty much every aspect of a person’s life. I’ve seen it as a roundabout way to control behavior.”

While Clancy’s bill would prohibit Utah from participating in a central bank for digital currency, another measure in the works would establish a central bank in the state for gold and silver. In 2011, Utah lawmakers passed legislation allowing residents to use gold and silver as legal tender. Because carrying around bullion is cumbersome, Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, plans legislation to establish the “Utah Bullion Depository,” a sort of state-run bank where people can deposit gold and silver bullion, then use a debit card to spend those funds.

Gold and silver have been an economic obsession on the far-right for decades. It’s mostly seen as an asset that would retain its value in the case of economic or government collapse or as a hedge against government overreach.

The text of Ivory’s proposal is not yet available. Similar legislation in Oklahoma would require constructing a secure facility, think a state-level Fort Knox, where individuals can deposit their precious metals. Ivory is working on the proposal with Utah State Treasurer Marlo Oaks and Kevin Freeman, who hosts the “Economic War Room” program and wrote “Pirate Money,” which asserts that the Founding Fathers “hid a clause in the Constitution” allowing states to use Spanish gold doubloons and silver pieces of eight as currency.

“What if you could put your gold and silver into a depository controlled by the state of Utah? You can literally turn gold and silver into transactions, so you can walk into a merchant and pay for it,” Freeman said in a recorded address to the Utah Eagle Forum. “It’s constitutional, biblical and supported by historical precedent.”

Oaks heartily endorsed Ivory’s plan, adding that he would like the Legislature to give him the authority to invest some state funds in precious metals, which he cannot do currently.

“We’re looking at also being able to buy gold for some of our portfolios, particularly the rainy day funds,” Oaks said. “The reason you have rainy day funds is because you want to have money when it’s a rainy day. That’s usually when bad things economically are happening. One way to protect yourself is to have something like gold exposure in those portfolios.”

Editor’s note This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.