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Something a bit strange is happening Tuesday in heavily Republican Utah.
Major new laws take effect that may seem more likely in a liberal, blue state: gay-rights protection, giving many drug offenders treatment instead of a prison cell and toughening seat-belt enforcement that conservatives fought for years.
And there's more: Tax hikes take effect later in July for transportation and education, and lawmakers cleared the way for local governments to put sales-tax hikes for roads and transit on the ballot the sort of increases normally denounced by Republicans.
These new laws emerged as Republicans hold the second-biggest supermajority in the Utah Capitol in the past 80 years: 63-12 in the House and 24-5 in the Senate.
Even "The Economist," a London newspaper, wonders what's happening. It opined that the GOP-controlled Utah Legislature followed a "surprising political path," but lauds it for "quietly forging a model of constructive Republicanism."
"I don't want to label anything Republican or Democratic. It was just responsible," Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, author of the bill raising transportation taxes, said about it and the other soon-to-be laws.
Seeking practical solutions to longtime, thorny problems had lawmakers this year "looking at issues in ways that don't follow traditional battle lines," said House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper.
While he and others acknowledge that the biggest of the 387 new laws that take effect Tuesday address issues normally pushed by liberals, they say the GOP-controlled Legislature gave them a conservative spin.
"We did pass gay rights, but we attached religious liberties to it," said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy. ''We did raise the gas tax, but it was the right thing to do." He noted the 5-cent-per-gallon bump effective in January will be the first in 18 years, during which time the tax has lost 40 percent of its buying power.
Many wrongly believe Utah Republicans are all extreme right-wingers who want no government and no regulation, Niederhauser said. "Republicans are for limited regulations and small government, not no government. So when there's a need out there and it makes sense, the Republican Legislature is going to respond in a conservative way."
Hughes said lawmakers showed that "we as a Republican state can be a template for political discussions going forward" by working with everyone, unlike Washington "where things have screeched to a halt."
Gay rights • Perhaps the most surprising of all the new laws taking effect Tuesday is SB296 by Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, banning housing and employment discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents.
"Republicans and Democrats, Mormons and non-Mormons, gay and straight all got together and we worked out legislation that benefited everybody," said Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, a gay-rights group.
Urquhart had pushed that bill for years with little success. But LDS Church leaders held a press conference as the legislative session began to support such a measure as long as it also included protection for religious rights. The Mormon faith claims membership of more than 60 percent of Utahns and is even more dominant in the state Capitol, where more than 80 percent are LDS.
Williams pointed to the contrast between Utah and Indiana, which sparked national controversy and attacks by passing "a law that would allow individuals to discriminate against LGBT folk based on their religious beliefs." Meanwhile, "Utah passed protections for employees and for tenants, and not for employers. That's a significant difference."
Hughes said lawmakers wanted to stop discrimination no matter whether it's based "on the church people attend or the makeup of their household."
A related new law, SB297 by Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, allows people not to perform gay marriages if it is contrary to their religious beliefs but requires county clerks to provide someone to perform such marriages. Williams said several other provisions that gay groups had opposed in that bill were amended out.
He said up to now, about half of county clerk offices have not offered officials to perform gay marriages, but the law requires that to change as of Tuesday. "It opens up access to marriage, particularly in rural communities."
Prison reform • Perhaps as surprising as the anti-discrimination bills is how ACLU lawyers stood with conservative lawmakers this year to back prison reform that sponsor Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, called "an epic shift" in the way Utah manages drug offenders.
His HB348 will give many addicts treatment instead of prison and many drug offenses will carry smaller penalties. It is designed to give offenders a better chance of avoiding prison and staying out once released.
Hutchings has said a main reason the bill passed is that lawmakers are trying to find a new home for the state prison, which is now in Draper. They want to build a prison of about 4,000 beds the same as the current one. To make that feasible, the state must reduce its recidivism rate to slow the growth in inmates.
So conservative goals of saving money lined up with longtime liberal goals of drug-sentencing and prison reform.
Buckling up • On another front, conservatives for years fought efforts to toughen enforcement of seat-belt laws, arguing it would infringe on personal freedom. Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, a Utah Highway Patrol lieutenant, countered those arguments this year to pass HB79.
"It's not a personal issue. It affects other people. You're 40 percent more likely to hurt someone else in your car if you're not wearing a seat belt" by becoming a human projectile, he said.
"And people lose control of their cars if they don't wear a seat belt" by not staying in the seat during swerves, and causing crashes, he said. "So we've shown this is not just a personal choice issue any more than speeding, DUI or running a red light."
Niederhauser said conservative spins to the bill included making it expire in a few years, although it could be renewed; allowing only warnings for the first offense; and permitting a first ticket to be waived if the violator completes an online safety course.
Conservative arguments with a twist also helped pass normally abhorred tax increases.
The 5-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase was billed as long overdue. Hughes said the 24.5 cent tax approved in 1997 now has the buying power of only 15 cents because of inflation. "So you could argue that people were getting tax decreases all these years," Hughes said.
The Legislature also passed a $75 million property tax increase for education. House Democratic leader Brad King, D-Salt Lake City, said he was surprised to see a topic "we as Democrats have pushed for years and years" pass, but he said Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, succeeded in showing a practical need for it.
"I think it shows the values of the Democratic Party really do resonate with people in Utah," King said. "But sometimes it's hard to get through the political fog on those things."
New conservative laws • Make no mistake, Utah still is far from a liberal state as shown by some of the other laws taking effect Tuesday.
These include reinstating the firing squad as an acceptable form of execution; banning powdered alcohol, or powders that make alcoholic drinks when added to water; and creating a new white- collar-crime registry that publicly lists convicted fraudsters, much like sex offenders are listed in a similar public database.
Also, one of the biggest signs of how conservative Utah remains is how the House blocked expanding Medicaid coverage for the poor, wanting to avoid accepting federal aid that it fears could lead to requiring greater future state spending. Lawmakers are still seeking a compromise on that with President Barack Obama's administration.
A list of all the bills that passed this year, including the 387 that take effect Tuesday, is available online at the Legislature's website (http://le.utah.gov/asp/passedbills/passedbills.asp).
@LeeHDavidson Liberal laws in Republican Utah
On Tuesday, 387 new laws take effect. Many major ones sound like they came from a liberal state. Others are more traditionally conservative.
• Gay rights
• Prison reform giving many drug offenders treatment instead of incarceration
• Toughening seat-belt enforcement
• Reinstating the firing squad as a form of execution
• Banning "powdered alcohol"
• Creating a public registry of people convicted of fraud