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Editorial: The good and the bad of the 2017 Utah Legislature

Published March 11, 2017 3:06 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Another session of the Utah Legislature has come to a close. As with any such human endeavor, there were accomplishments, errors and omissions. And there remain opportunities for improvements, corrections and, in a few cases, some vetoes from the governor.

Here are a few of the issues that occupied their time:

Public lands • Perhaps the most significant decision of the past month and a half didn't even happen at the Capitol — not to say it wasn't the Legislature's doing. That was the announcement by the people who run the twice-annual Outdoor Retailer trade shows that they are pulling out of Utah in protest of state government's willful lack of respect for the beauty and fragility of the state's public lands in general, and the new Bears Ears National Monument in particular. It's a message lawmakers still haven't grasped, as was proven by their offer of $1 million in state funding if the show organizers changed their minds. The tendered bribe is proof that the legislators think, to their discredit, that it's all about money. Sometimes, even to successful businesspeople, it isn't.

Homelessness • Great credit belongs to the Legislature in general, and House Speaker Greg Hughes in particular, for recognizing that the homelessness crisis that is most apparent in certain neighborhoods of Salt Lake City is a state issue, demanding a share of the state's assets. Lawmakers have set aside $27 million to replace the overwhelmed Road Home shelter in the Rio Grande neighborhood with a collection of new resource centers and approved $4 million for programs designed to increase the community's stock of affordable housing.

Alcohol • For a state that doesn't drink very much, and a Legislature where most members admit they know nothing about alcoholic beverages, lawmakers sure spend a lot of time on booze. The results this year include a compromise on state efforts to shield the eyes of impressionable youth from the pouring, drawing or mixing of alcoholic drinks in restaurants. Restaurants will now have some alternatives — buffer areas of varying depths — to the absurd Zion Curtain, that 7-foot-tall barrier that hides dispensing areas from dining areas. Lawmakers also passed a bill lowering the acceptable blood alcohol content for drivers from the common 0.08 to the lowest-in-the-nation 0.05. That's a level commonly found in Europe, where alcohol is considered normal, but Gov. Gary Herbert might think long and hard about the effect it may have on Utah's convention and tourism industry before he either signs or vetoes it.

Tax reform • Dreams of rewriting the complex Utah tax code, a heavy lift under any circumstances, proved unattainable in such a busy period. There are just too many competing values and goals, including economic development, fairness and, most important, making up our deficient funding of public education. The good news was that plans to raise the state sales tax on groceries, among the most regressive tax levies there is, was abandoned. Leaders promise more work before the next session — work that must consider the Our Schools Now drive for an income-tax hike to pay for schools.

Guns • Gov. Gary Herbert has been known to veto legislation that upsets what he reasonably sees as the state's proper balance of Second Amendment rights and responsibilities. He should, then, veto a bill that lowers the age for concealed-carry permits from the current 21 down to 18. The reason for that change, according to sponsors, would be to allow female college students to carry concealed weapons as a deterrent to rape. That's a thought process that betrays very little understanding of young adults, rape or firearms. Or explain why we'd all be safer if more 18-year-old men were carrying. A bill that would have granted every adult the right to carry concealed weapons without a permit was, fortunately, killed — in part because the National Rifle Association objected to a part of the bill that would have prohibited people with domestic-violence convictions or restraining orders from buying or owning guns.

Women's issues • On the positive side, lawmakers approved a measure that directs that all of the physical evidence gathered in investigations of reported rapes be turned over to, and processed in, the state's crime lab. The failure of law-enforcement agencies, here and across the nation, to routinely process all of the so-called rape kits is a disgrace that makes some sexual-assault victims sorry they came forward to report the crime. On the negative side, lawmakers only came up with $1.2 million — half of what will be needed — to pay for the testing. Worse, the Legislature has once crowded itself into doctors' examining rooms by requiring physicians to tell women considering a medically induced abortion that they can change their minds between the first dose of medicine and the second. That's an idea that doesn't have the backing of the medical profession. But lawmakers, sadly, don't care.




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