Lauren Simpson: Utah’s lawmakers are in election-year mode

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Speaker Brad R. Wilson, R-Kaysville kept an energy drink next to his gavel during the waning hours of the last day of the Utah Legislative session, March 12, 2020.

The Utah legislative session felt different this year.

Between COVID-19, an instant repeal of the tax reform passed by the Legislature one month prior and an uncharacteristically slow release of bills, Capitol Hill veterans agreed it was a singularly unique session. And on top of all that, the cloud of the 2020 election loomed over every political decision.

Conservative politicians who hold a supermajority in Utah seemed unusually nervous about the political future of both the nation and the state. In a committee meeting discussion last week, some representatives advocated for quickly adopting a workaround that would restrict the use of federal funding for family planning services.

Rep. Norm Thurston urged the committee to “move forward post-haste to get what we can while we can.” He continued, “I think the November election is a 50/50 shot as to who’s going to win, and rules change dramatically if you have an administration change.”

In addition to those explicit fears about a change in the White House, lawmakers also brought forward bills catering to their most passionate — and far-right — supporters. Unfortunately for the rest of us, the policies these lawmakers choose to showcase their bona-fide conservative values aren’t supported by the majority of Utahns.

There is perhaps no better example of this than the extreme anti-abortion bills debated at the Capitol this year. In private conversation, lawmakers admit they find these bills distasteful and wish their colleagues would stop running them. But, afraid of losing their seats in a primary election, they continue to vote for them anyway.

During a committee discussion about whether to force a woman considering an abortion to undergo an unnecessary ultrasound, Sen. Evan Vickers, a tenured senator and pharmacist, criticized the bill as “really heavy-handed on the physicians” and “really extreme.” He shared that during the floor debate on another bill to ban abortion, a colleague asked him, “How many times do we have to prove we’re pro-life?”

Vickers said that although he would vote in support, his “patience runs a little thin” that this issue was before the Legislature again.

Recent polling shows that 80% of Utahns do not want additional restrictions on abortion. But in an election year, that doesn’t matter.

The threat of an upcoming election also spooked lawmakers away from tackling popular gun safety measures. 88 percent of Utahns support universal background checks, and 68 percent support emergency risk protective orders, or “red flag” laws. But lawmakers, afraid of losing their status as Second Amendment champions, were unwilling to risk voting against the gun lobby.

Meanwhile, discussions of giving Utahns a tax cut continued through the final week of the session. With a limited budget following the repeal of tax reform, there could not be a more irresponsible time to reduce state revenue streams. Yet the promise of an election year tax cut was powerful enough to keep the dream alive for some lawmakers, even in the midst of a plummeting stock market and a pandemic outbreak.

The election is the proverbial sword that hangs above each seat in the Utah Legislature. If trends from 2016 and 2018 continue, the 2020 election will result in record voter turnout for the state. The entire Utah House of Representatives is up for re-election, as is half of the Senate.

The election is the catalyst for message bills large and small. It is the reason a Senate committee rushed to expand a school breakfast program after facing public backlash for killing it in committee. It is why House and Senate leadership signed a citation honoring President Trump quietly rather than bringing it to the floor for a vote.

Some lawmakers are afraid of the public. But they don’t have to be. Those who have listened to and voted in line with the people will be well prepared to meet the test of November.

Lauren Simpson

Lauren Simpson is the policy director for Alliance for a Better Utah.