Has Utah lost its ‘Utah Way’? Robert Gehrke says we’re headed in the wrong direction.

New, more ideological Utah House members have tipped the balance and pushed the Legislature away from inclusion, common sense and compromise.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

At the end of Gov. Gary Herbert’s final term, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the unrest that followed, Utah leaders gathered to sign a pledge — the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion — acknowledging that racism exists and committing to combat it in our society.

It was patterned after an earlier pledge, The Utah Compact from 2010, that focused on immigration. It recognized our common humanity, stressed that families should be kept together and acknowledged that immigrants are part of our community and drivers of the economy.

That compact became the model for “the Utah Way.” Here, the thinking went, we do things differently. We eschew toxic, reactionary politics that have poisoned the national debate. We value the viewpoints of those with whom we might disagree, embrace dialogue and do the hard work of finding balanced solutions to difficult problems.

“The Utah Way,” Herbert told me last week, “is really a way for us as state policymakers working together in concert to come together and find common ground and build a consensus of what the solution should be.”

It manifested itself when stakeholders bucked national trends and came together to hammer out a bill prohibiting housing and employment discrimination against LGBTQ Utahns.

In situations big and small, The Utah Way has become a touchstone for our Beehive exceptionalism — and after the 2023 legislative session, it is in jeopardy.

Just a few years after state leaders championed the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, promoting the value of our multicultural community, there were at least six bills proposed during this year’s legislative session undermining that notion. These included measures like HB455, prohibiting questions about views on diversity in education or state job interview; banning any school lessons that might make a student feel bad about past racism; and outlawing equity offices at colleges and universities.

The crusade against diversity was so pervasive that the Legislature’s only Black member, Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, was at a loss.

“If I have to be honest, I’m tired,” she said during an emotional floor speech against the state entity bill. “I’m more than tired physically. I’m tired spiritually and mentally from fighting. It seems we keep taking two steps forward and five steps back. … I don’t know what to tell my community anymore. I don’t know how to make them feel safe.”

After Hollins concluded, the House passed HB455 with every Republican voting for it — although it eventually died in the Senate, as did most of the bills targeting racial and ethnic inclusion.

But it is just one example of how the priorities of Utah legislators have fallen victim to a national, ultra-conservative agenda and a brand of win-at-all-cost politics that is the antithesis of the Utah Way.

Consider the crusade against transgender youth. Lawmakers heard from Utah parents of children with gender dysphoria how hormone therapy had allowed their children to flourish and in some instances saved lives.

Rather than doing the hard work of fashioning reasonable safeguards, the GOP majority pushed through an immediate ban on the nationally recognized medical standard for treating transgender youths, joining a national effort that has seen nearly 400 anti-transgender bills sponsored in states this year.

In the quest to become the latest state with school vouchers, lawmakers used a cynical scheme to pair the proposal with pay raises for teachers, knowing vouchers could not stand on their own. They repeated the move by coupling the elimination of the sales tax on food — which the public has wanted for years — with further eroding a near-century-old provision ensuring the state income tax goes to support public education.

Both of those moved early in the session with little public comment, something that Herbert said was surprising.

“If you’re going to do the Utah Way and bring people together. The process counts,” he said. “Part of the Utah Way is we respect differences of opinion, and we shortchange the process by cutting off debate and discussion.”

“I’m not sure it would have made any difference in the outcome,” he said, “but it would have made them feel better about having their voices heard.”

I’m not arguing that nothing beneficial was done this session. Bills to address our water crisis, tax credits for affordable housing, expansion of full-day kindergarten and extension of postpartum benefits for new mothers are all good steps (that I will address further in a later column).

But it was more common for the Legislature to draw on the nationwide fear campaign that targets vulnerable populations and is seeping into statehouses around the country.

They passed another bill seeking to ban transgender girls from sports; sought to restrict mail-in voting; passed legislation aimed at protecting gun companies, coal companies and anti-abortion groups by targeting “woke investing”; attempted to crack down on drag shows; approved legislation to restrict how schools can teach students about race and gender; forced all abortions to hospitals without bothering to understand the ramifications; refused to consider requiring clergy to report sex abuse; and passed bills that could keep the courts from being a check on the Legislature’s power.

Some of these passed, and many didn’t. To some extent, these sorts of bills are to be expected. So why is this different?

Since last year the Utah House got 15 new GOP members — 20% of the body. Three replaced Democrats and most of the rest replaced moderate members who retired or, in one instance, lost re-election. They came in on a mission to upend the system and implement a more corrosive, dogmatic agenda.

There is too much of that, said Herbert, on both sides of the political rift.

“We need to, I think, resist the temptation to be negative. We ought to treat each other with respect, even though we have differences of opinion,” he said. “We see too much contempt in politics today, contempt on all sides.”

He’s right, but this division isn’t going away anytime soon, and neither are these new lawmakers. If anything, it is likely to get worse.

My concern, however, is that we’re nearing a tipping point, because this isn’t just about bad policy. It’s larger than that. Even if you agree with everything they did this session, it is about a process breaking down.

It’s about lawmakers being unwilling to listen to dissent, collaborate and find sensible solutions to complicated issues that impact real people. In the process, we risk becoming just another ideologically driven red state and losing our Utah Way.