Michelle Quist: Utah Legislature has some important matters left on its plate

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) New House Speaker Brad Wilson conducts business in the House of Representatives, on the first day of the 2019 Utah Legislative session, Monday, Jan. 28, 2019.

We’ve passed hump day for the 2019 legislative session, which means the Legislature’s pace is about to pick up exponentially. They’ve passed the base budget, which is a lot more than we can say about the federal government.

So kudos to the Utah Legislature.

As the pace quickens, there are some especially important bills to keep track of.

The beefier hate crimes legislation, proposed by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, will finally have a Senate hearing. I wrote about our need for a stronger hate crimes law last week. Just this weekend a cellphone video went viral on social media showing a man hitting another man after asking if he was gay. It’s time to see this legislation pass.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, is shepherding a bill through the Senate that would provide legal representation for juveniles appearing in court. Most are surprised to learn this isn’t already happening; the legislation is overdue.

Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, is running a bill that would allow victims of first-degree felonies – importantly, first-degree sexual assault felonies – to ask the state attorney general’s office to review the case if local prosecutors decline to prosecute.

Speaking about the legislation, Lisonbee referred to the alleged sexual assault case against Provo Police Chief John King, where both Utah and Salt Lake County prosecutors declined to press charges based on “evidence problems.” When the alleged perpetrator is the police chief and county law enforcement agencies cite to outdated he said-she said evidentiary problems, an independent review by the state attorney general’s office is a good idea.

Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, has a bill that would create the Access Utah Promise Scholarship Program to increase access to college education in a need-based way. Similar programs at Weber State University and Salt Lake Community College have increased graduation rates. The program would replace the current Regents’ Scholarship program that often gives money to students who don’t need it.

State-funded programs should help those who need funds, not those who don’t.

Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, has introduced a bill that clarifies what teachers can say about condoms and birth control pills. Current law is confusing, and Ward’s legislation simply provides more clarity for teachers. The bill expressly allows teachers to teach about “the medical characteristics, effectiveness and limitations of contraceptive methods or devices.”

What’s the use of being able to teach about the limitations of a condom if a teacher can’t even say condom?

Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, and Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, are sponsoring a bill that would create the Governor’s Early Childhood Commission dedicated to improving the programs and services available to children, especially those from low-income households.

If eliminating inter-generational poverty is really a priority, then this commission is a necessary tool.

Sen. Daniel Hemmert, R-Orem, proposed legislation that would allow three weeks of unpaid leave per year for employees of businesses with 30-49 employees, for which the current federal FMLA regulations do not apply. Women who work for small businesses should, at the very minimum, be allowed three weeks at home after the birth of a child without losing her job.

Sen. Jacob Anderegg proposed affordable housing modifications that could help to alleviate the affordable housing crisis. Critics argue that it doesn’t go far enough, but it’s a good start. The legislation would make a one-time $20 million contribution to a loan fund that provides low-interest lending to affordable residential construction. Smaller amounts would be funded each year thereafter.

There are also important appropriations requests for issues like maternal mental health, preventing sexual assault and domestic violence, and shelter funding for domestic violence survivors.

Yes, the Golden Spike Celebration is an important-enough event for a legislative appropriation, especially as it recognizes the contributions of Chinese-American laborers and the railroad’s effect on Native Americans. But is this one-time event really more important than funding emergency shelter for women and children running from domestic violence?

And finally, Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, and Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, introduced legislation that would allow state candidates to use campaign funds for childcare purposes, as federal candidates already can. Men and women could both benefit from such legislation without any cost to state or local governments.

Here’s to hoping the Legislature passes these important bills, and saves the last-minute, single-constituent, end-of-session surprises for the round file.

Michelle Quist

Michelle Quist is a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune.