Gov. Spencer Cox gets out his veto pen so seldom that one might wonder if he even knows where it is kept. So it is remarkable when he pledges, practically the moment a bill is passed by the Utah Legislature, to apply the executive negative to any measure.
That’s what he has rightly done with HB11, a bill that would ban transgender girls from playing interscholastic sports in Utah. It is a cruel and pointless attack on human beings who have a difficult enough time negotiating adolescence without the state’s Legislature going out of its way to be hateful to them.
While he has that pen in his hand, Cox would be well advised to also veto HB399. That’s a bill that would remove from the public eye documents that are crucial in the public’s understanding of how their police departments and other public agencies behave in critical moments, particularly when people are killed by police officers.
It is troubling that Cox has already announced his intention to sign that bill, though there is still time for him to change his mind.
One thing both bills have in common, other than being particularly dreadful public policy, is that they each moved through the legislative process in a way that suggests lawmakers knew just how bad each is and hoped that nobody would notice what they were doing.
An attack on transgender students
A move last year to ban transgender girls from sports died in the final days of the session, under the threat of a veto from the governor and concerns that it could cause a national boycott of Utah events, including the 2023 NBA All-Star Game.
By the morning of the final day of the 2022 session, it had become a special commission that would literally take the measure of any transgender girl who wanted to compete in school sports and rule on a case-by-case basis whether each individual human being would somehow have an unfair advantage competing against other girls.
That is a horribly invasive idea, one that was certainly no improvement over the existing policy of the body that should be making these decisions, the Utah High School Athletics Association. That organization limits participation to transgender girls who have undergone at least a year of hormone therapy, which is clearly enough to limit sports to those who have fully committed to the transition, and all the physical and psychological pressures that go with it, and filter out anyone who might just be fishing for smaller and weaker opponents. If such a person even exists.
But, as the legislative clock was running out, the fear of The Other got the better of a majority of lawmakers. Blowing past a compromise that LGBTQ advocates thought they had reached with lawmakers, Sen. Dan McCay sprang the amended bill in the Senate with literally hours to go before the constitutionally mandated final gavel. And hours after the deadline for any candidates to file to run against incumbent lawmakers.
Cox said he was “very disappointed in the process.” Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson Friday tweeted, “In my 10 years on Capitol Hill I have never felt as sick over the debate or outcome of a bill as I did over this one tonight. Veto is the right call.”
In my 10 years on Capitol Hill I have never felt as sick over the debate or outcome of a bill as I did over this one tonight. Veto is the right call. https://t.co/LXJpxTrfxO— Deidre Henderson 🇺🇦 (@DeidreHenderson) March 5, 2022
The good news is that enough Republicans joined all of the minority Democrats in voting against the bombshell version of HB11 that Cox’s veto is likely to stick. This time, hopefully, for good.
Closing records of police shootings
Chances are not nearly as good for HB399, the bill that would make so-called Garrity statements exempt from the state’s open records law. That bill, a direct response to efforts by The Salt Lake Tribune and other journalists to tell the truth about police shootings in Utah, allows agencies to keep the lid on officer statements that, through the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1967 Garrity v. New Jersey ruling, may be required by police departments but may not be used to charge an officer with a crime.
The wisdom of the Supreme Court is that the Constitution protects any person, even a police officer accused of killing someone under questionable circumstances, from being forced to give evidence against himself in a criminal proceeding. But in internal matters police departments must be allowed to compel full and truthful statements from their officers if they are to evaluate policies and performance.
Without access to those statements, it is also impossible for the public, by whose authority and in whose name the police operate, to know what those officers are doing and whether the public should demand a change.
HB399 was also rushed through the process, receiving only one brief committee hearing in the House and no public airing at all in the Senate, before it passed both houses overwhelmingly. Even if Cox does find the courage to veto it, that move is likely to be overridden.
He should veto it anyway. And voters should let their lawmakers know that, this time, they want them to vote against HB399.
Cox should also give lawmakers a second chance — or, more accurately, a first chance — to really consider HB146. That’s a bill amended at the last minute, without public input, to prohibit any local control of noisy ATVs on public streets.
Utah lawmakers have no respect for the public they serve
Our Legislature’s contempt for the people they supposedly represent is appalling. Its propensity for proposing, pretending to consider and then passing important legislation in such a hurry is a particularly bad habit that is a result of the Republican supermajority that feels no need to involve the public in its deliberations.
The same thing happened early in the session, when the Legislature fell all over itself to take proper authority for public health measures away from local health departments and school boards. And to push through an income tax cut that will deprive state functions, mostly public schools, of $192 million a year.
Some of the Legislature’s accomplishments — notably a suite of bills to protect the Great Salt Lake and conserve this dry state’s precious water — demonstrate that lawmakers can deliberate their way to a good outcome when they want to.
When they don’t, it should be the governor’s responsibility to use his constitutional power to at least slow down lawmakers’ dash to bad ideas.