SALT LAKE CITY -- Advice has been given that sometimes the smartest move you make is the one you didn't do. That appears to be the feeling of Utah's lawmakers when they decided to not address legislation that would have provided protection to gay and lesbian individuals in Utah in employment and housing situations and when the decision was made to not fund a bold initiative to give every Utah student a laptop or iPad device.
Indeed, the 2014 legislative session may be most remembered for what was not passed and one piece of legislation that was passed that will change Utah's election process.
In January, when the session began, the topic of gay marriage had the state in a dizzy spell as it was in the wake of a confusing ordeal of a judge overturning the state's ban on the marriages and then having a federal appeals court weeks later issue a stay on the first ruling, returning the state to original status on the marriages. During that time, however, many gay couples were married and with the stay on the ruling their marriage status was put into legal limbo.
Passion was high on the marriage issue and both sides weren't going to back down. Then came the session and a bill that had been in the works since the Legislature adjourned in 2013, the bill to give LGBT individuals in the state protection in employment and housing situations.
The legislation wasn't a Republican versus Democrat issue. Rather, it pitted Republicans against other Republicans. Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, was the chief sponsor of the bill, but his biggest opponent was Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden.
Reid teamed up with conservative groups prior to the session to hold town hall meetings across the state to discuss the issue and to rally their supporters to oppose Urquhart's bill.
Reid even drafted legislation that would have called for Utah public schools to include in their American history classes a study on religious freedoms granted under the U.S. Constitution, a maneuver to make the point that Utahns should be able to resist granting employment or housing to LGBT individuals if their religion prohibited such activities.
Rep. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, also drafted legislation that called for Utah's clergy to not be required to perform a gay marriage if they were asked to and numerous other bills began to be drafted in response to the marriage ruling. That is when legislative leaders thought it was probably time to hit the pause button on the whole discussion.
"I'm more and more convinced it was the right decision for this session," said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, on Thursday when asked about halting the LGBT and religious-related legislation. "I think we can come back in a less emotional time next year and address it."
Niederhauser observed that if the bills would have gone forward, Utah may have ended up in a public relations disaster that Arizona found itself in when its legislature passed a bill earlier this year that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians. The Arizona bill was vetoed but not before the state received criticism across the country.
Lawmakers also explained the stand down came as a result of the appeal the state is making to a federal appellate court on the ruling that struck down Utah's ban on gay marriage. Legislators were briefed by the attorney general's office on its case to protect Utah's marriage law and were warned that comments made in legislative hearings on any of the religious or LGBT related legislation could be used in the court's decision on the Utah's law. Following that briefing, Republican leaders in both the House and Senate decided the bills would not be heard.
The decision left supporters of the housing and employment protection bill perplexed as they argued it had nothing to do with marriage and that no one in Utah supports discrimination.
"There was an unfortunate confusion of these two separate and distinct issues: the pending marriage case and the proposed statute that would amend existing employment and housing protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity," said Brandie Balken, Executive Director of Equality Utah. "The state of Utah had the opportunity to address a real and pervasive problem, and instead, chose to set the issue aside for another day. Equality Utah will continue to work to implement these important protections that 72 percent of Utahns support."
Lawmakers for years now have attempted to run the employment and housing protection legislation. The 2013 proposal made history as it passed a Senate committee but was never heard on the floor. There is no doubt the issue will return in 2015 when lawmakers return to Capitol Hill.
Lockhart's last stand
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, kicked off the session with a bold initiative to change Utah's education system. Multiple times Lockhart called her initiative a "vision" that she had for Utah's schools and that it was time to bring the schools into the 21st century. Lockhart's proposal also came with a hefty price tag. Estimates ran as high as $300 million but the bill that would put the initiative in place called for $200 million to get the program going.
Lockhart insisted early on that her first goal was to get the lawmakers on board with her vision and then she would worry about how to pay for the program. She argued that if the legislators had decided that her initiative had enough merit that there would be enough support to alter Utah's budget to pay for the program.
But the question of how to pay for it was on the top of every lawmaker's mind when asked about the proposal. Democrats in the House Education Committee insisted that any money used for the initiative could not come from budgets intended to be used for teacher salaries.
Lockhart said money could come from Utah's transportation budgets to pay for her program but that became a non-starter with the Senate. The upper chamber was willing to allow Lockhart to have $26 million for her initiative but she said that wasn't enough. The Senate also said she could raise taxes to pay the bill but Lockhart wasn't willing to entertain that option.
Lockhart also had pressure from Gov. Gary Herbert on the plan. Late in the session, Herbert said he would veto anything over $30 million for the proposal.
On the last Saturday of the session, in private budget negotiations between the Republican House and Senate leaders, Lockhart scrapped her plan and the money that was allocated for her initiative was largely placed in higher education funding, which was a win for Utah Valley University as a large portion of those dollars are set to flow to the Orem-based school under an agreement made by the state's higher education institutions.
Lockhart told reporters on Thursday that the real test of someone is how they react when something doesn't go their way, and she said she hopes she has reacted to her loss in a proper way. She plans to continue to discuss increasing technology in Utah's schools while she remains in the Legislature. She has said she will not run again. Her 16-year career in the Legislature will come to an end in December.
"We'll still discuss this issue with the education task force," Lockhart said. "We'll move forward on the things that didn't get through this session."
Lockhart noted she was still very pleased with the nearly $14 billion budget that legislature approved. Lawmakers appropriated more than half of the new money the state is projected to receive in tax revenues to education needs in the state and she was proud of that fact. She was also pleased that the budget was able to fund an increase in compensation to state employees and not bring any new taxes to Utahns.
The Count My Vote Compromise
One item the legislature did take action on this session will be felt among Utah voters for years to come.
The legislation, S.B. 54, came as a well-funded group known as Count My Vote, which was supported by former Gov. Mike Leavitt and endorsed by Mitt Romney, looked to end Utah's caucus and convention system and replace it with direct primary elections.
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, drafted the bill to respond to Count My Vote. He went as far as to put Count My Vote's initiative language in his bill, but also placed an escape hatch for Utah's political parties to avoid having direct primaries if they took certain measures to increase voter participation.
Rich McKeown, executive chair of Count My Vote, said Bramble's bill was similar to something that would be done in Cuba as he viewed it as an attempt by the government to circumvent the initiative process. He argued the legislature should let the Count My Vote effort go forward instead of heading it off at the pass before it was known if Count My Vote even had enough signatures to have its initiative placed on the ballot.
Gov. Gary Herbert warned that he may consider a veto of the bill as he did not want it to appear the legislature or the governor was attempting to thwart a legislative action by the people.
That is when Bramble and Count My Vote came together. At a rare Sunday afternoon legislative press conference, Bramble and Count My Vote announced that a deal had been struck between the two sides and that Utah's caucus and convention system would be preserved.
Under the deal Utah's political parties could still use the caucus and convention system to nominate candidates but they would also have to allow for candidates to have an alternate path to the ballot through a petition process. The new bill stated that a candidate seeking a statewide office, such as governor or U.S. Senator, would have to obtain 28,000 signatures to have their name put on a party's primary ballot, if they wanted to run for a congressional seat they would need 7,000 signatures, 2,000 signatures for a state senate seat, 1,000 signatures for a state house seat and 1,000 signatures for a county office.
The new bill also called for the political parties to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in their primary elections, something the state Democratic party already allowed.
When it was debated on the House floor, multiple members worried the bill would only prove to be the eventual demise of Utah's caucus and convention system. Some House members suggested to not pass the bill and force Count My Vote to prove it actually had the signatures it needed to put the initiative on the ballot.
"The caucus system will shrivel on the vine and die before our very eyes," said Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, in the floor debate. "A 'no' vote at least leaves the opportunity or the possibility that Count My Vote will fail because it is not as popular as some claim it is."
Some House members echoed Greene's concern but the bill passed easily and Gov. Gary Herbert signed the legislation into law earlier this week. Herbert said he is a fan of the caucus and convention system as he was a product of it. He stated that if he runs again he would utilize the caucus and convention system over the signature gathering process.
"This will not be a death warrant for the caucus-convention system in my view," Herbert said. "In fact, some would argue it has preserved it."
The bill will not have any impact on this year's elections directly but indirectly the House and Senate members that are up for election this year may have to answer to party delegates as to why they supported legislation that diluted their power in Utah's election process.